Charlie Kirk, the prominent leader of the right-wing Turning Point USA group, fielded a disturbing question from an audience member at an event in Idaho earlier this week. “At this point, we’re living under corporate and medical fascism,” the audience member told Kirk. “This is tyranny. When do we get to use the guns? No, and I’m not—that’s not a joke. I’m not saying it like that. I mean, literally, where’s the line? How many elections are they going to steal before we kill these people?”
Kirk, perhaps recognizing the optics of the moment, immediately told the audience member that he was “going to denounce that.” He then expressed sympathy for the underlying sentiment and blamed an unspecified “them” for inciting it. “Because you’re playing into all their plans, and they’re trying to make you do this,” Kirk said. “They are trying to provoke you and everyone here. They are trying to make you do something that will be violent that will justify a takeover of your freedoms and liberties, the likes of which we have never seen.”
The troubling exchange captured in unusually blunt terms what a good amount of the conservative discourse on political violence and its purported virtues sounds like these days. On a daily basis, right-wing commentators, as well as an uncomfortable number of Republican elected officials, falsely tell their fellow conservatives that America is on the verge of an irreversible shift into tyranny and authoritarianism, the likes of which would destroy their way of life—and that the only solution may be violent resistance.
“When do we get to use the guns?” might be the best one-line summary of the modern right-wing relationship with political violence that I’ve ever encountered. A common trope in conservative rhetoric on the Second Amendment is to claim that some sort of unspecified bloodshed would follow if gun control advocates enacted their preferred policies. In most circumstances, the speaker does not explicitly or even implicitly endorse violence. But they normalize it by suggesting that it would be an almost natural result of gun control policies, like the smell of dust after rain.
In recent years, that normalization of political violence has seeped into other aspects of right-wing discourse. Conservative media outlets celebrated figures like Kyle Rittenhouse, who shot and killed two people in Kenosha, Wisconsin, during last year’s civil unrest, as well as a Missouri couple who brandished guns at Black Lives Matter protesters who marched through their gated community. Former President Donald Trump himself had issued his own threats of bloodshed last summer, writing on Twitter at one point that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” while threatening to send the U.S. military into major cities to quell racial justice protests.
All of this came to a head on January 6. Trump had long associated violence with threats to his hold on power, even claiming that his first impeachment process was an attempted “coup” and suggesting his removal from office could lead to civil war. He spent the months before the election falsely claiming that the results were fraudulent if he lost, then lied about Biden’s victory after the election while pressuring various elected officials to overturn the legitimate results. When Vice President Mike Pence refused to try to throw the election to Trump on January 6, thousands of MAGA supporters who were summoned to Washington by Trump himself attacked and ransacked the Capitol.
Those who sympathized with the rioters have leapt to their defense. Trump and his allies have tried to cast those arrested for their role in January 6 as political prisoners or victims of federal persecution. Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene told a conservative media outlet that violence at last year’s protests over the murder of George Floyd “was an attack on innocent American people, whereas January 6 was just a riot at the Capitol.” She then suggested that the January 6 insurrection—a violent attack on Congress to halt the democratic transition of power—was essentially justified. “If you think about what our Declaration of Independence says, it says to overthrow tyrants,” she added.
Some of those defenses rely on, well, creative interpretations of what had happened. “They were petitioning their government, they had a grievance, they wanted to air it out,” Arizona Representative Paul Gosar recently claimed, suggesting that the rioters simply wanted a “forensic audit” of the results. It’s unclear how placing a gallows outside the Capitol and chanting “Hang Mike Pence!” while roaming the building translates to support for more rigorous accountability practices for voting machines and mail-in ballots. Sadly, it’s not uncommon in American history for those who sympathize with violent political actors to spread misinformation about them to undermine their critics.
While many conservative figures invoke the American Revolution, those references often appear to be a means of legitimizing acts of violence. Ali Alexander, a right-wing activist who organized some of the “Stop the Steal” rallies in D.C. on January 6, often made the same comparison in the weeks ahead of the inauguration. “If they do this, everyone can guess what me and 500,000 others will do to that building,” Alexander reportedly wrote on Twitter last December, referring to reports that lawmakers would block attempts to object to the Electoral College count. “1776 is *always* an option,” he added. In a gathering in D.C. on the night of January 5, Alexander also led a crowd in chanting, “Victory or death.”
Barely disguised intimations of violent resistance aren’t limited to the 2020 election or to false claims of election fraud. Mark Levin, a popular conservative radio host, complained last month that vaccine mandates for nurses, cops, and Border Patrol agents amounted to “incremental tyranny” that should be resisted in revolutionary ways. “If we’re going to go down, we need to go down kicking,” he told his audience in a September 30 broadcast. “I’m not saying we will, but they’re winning, and we’re losing. But here’s what they don’t know—right here, you and I have built this massive army of patriots. Massive army of patriots. You, the Paul Reveres, you’re more informed than anybody else.”
Ironically, Paul Revere went to great lengths to protect his family from smallpox during an outbreak in Boston in the 1760s and, as I’ve noted before, there are good reasons to think that the Founders would be generally supportive of vaccine mandates. This hasn’t stopped right-wing pundits from denouncing a relatively modest testing-mandate proposal as something far more insidious. “Joe Biden’s weaponization of OSHA to force all companies with over 100 employees to either mandate vaccines or test their employees for Covid at least once a week is tyrannical,” Ben Shapiro claimed in his radio show last month. “It’s not just tyrannical, it is dictatorial in extremis. It is amazingly dictatorial.”
All of this is to say that those who consume right-wing media are inundated with a few messages over and over again: Democrats and the left are would-be dictators and tyrants. They’re using vaccine mandates and other big-government policies to destroy your rights and your freedoms. Social media companies are censoring your favorite far-right pundits, in violation of the First Amendment. Widespread voter fraud, not the genuine will of the American electorate, is what makes it impossible for your preferred candidates to win elections. And if they push us hard enough, just remember that Americans responded to tyrants with violent force in 1776.
It’s worth noting how surreal this violent mentality is when viewed from the left. While right-wing pundits hyperventilate about an incipient Biden dictatorship, Democrats in Congress can’t even get paid family leave or a wealth tax on billionaires into their make-or-break reconciliation bill. Republicans control a majority of state legislatures, enjoy all sorts of geographic and demographic advantages in the Senate, and have gerrymandered the House so thoroughly that they could retake the chamber in next fall’s midterms just through redistricting. The last two GOP presidents entered office despite winning fewer votes than their Democratic opponent. The Supreme Court will almost certainly have a conservative majority for the next 20 years. But, hey, OSHA might tell employers to test their unvaccinated workers for Covid-19. Time to man the barricades.
This messaging is so ubiquitous on the American right these days that I think it almost turns into white noise for many people who hear it. Occasionally someone turns the subtext into text so obvious that it’s hard for anyone to ignore, like when Trump suggested on the campaign trail in 2016 that “Second Amendment people” could step in if Clinton won that election. The former president, more than perhaps any other figure in modern American political life, is willing to embrace violent rhetoric and stomach its potential consequences. Over the last few years, federal agents arrested multiple Trump supporters for plotting or attempting mass assassination campaigns of his political opponents.
“When do we get to use the guns?” is a shocking question for any American who values civil peace or free government or the rule of law—or just happens to oppose murder, really—to hear. But that doesn’t mean it’s surprising. The query is the culmination of years of inflammatory right-wing rhetoric and the tacit embrace of violence as a political tool by a disturbing number of conservative politicians. After telling large numbers of Americans for more than a decade that dictatorship was imminent and that peaceful means of opposition have been exhausted, it’s tragically obvious that some listeners would draw what was, to them, an inescapable conclusion.