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Violent Delights

The GOP’s Fetish for Political Violence Is Reaching Dangerous New Heights

The Jim Jordan speakership fiasco shows that Republicans have grown so comfortable with threats and intimidation, they’re now turning on each other.

Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images
Representative Jim Jordan, shortly before his fellow House Republicans stripped him of his speaker-designate status

As Jim Jordan and his allies attempted to whip speaker votes last week, they kept running into a familiar refrain from their skeptics: The brass-knuckle tactics they were deploying were causing Jordan’s critics and their families to receive a slew of vicious messages—including death threats.

The Pynchonesque-ly named Iowa Representative Mariannette Miller-Meeks reported that she had received “credible death threats and a barrage of threatening calls” after switching her vote to oppose Jordan on a second speaker ballot. Georgia’s Drew Ferguson changed his vote after Jordan wouldn’t “calm down the hysteria” surrounding his nomination. Nebraska’s Don Bacon revealed his wife had grown so fearful after a barrage of intimidating calls that she had started sleeping with a loaded gun. On Friday, CNN aired a voicemail that the wife of one unnamed congressman received from a caller that threatened she would be “fucking molested” if she didn’t convince her husband to back Jordan.

Jordan may have publicly decried these threats, but his association with an effort to use threats and intimidation as an explicit political tactic—and as a means of cajoling fellow Republicans to get in line behind him—is the clearest sign yet of just how central such tactics have become for mainstream Republicans. Indeed, while they failed to have their intended effect, it’s abundantly clear that the Republican Party remains as comfortable with radical elements promising violent retribution as Donald Trump was during his effort to overturn a legitimate election.

Given the size of the anti-Jordan contingent—about two dozen members—and the slim majority required to win the gavel (he could lose five Republican votes, give or take), one could reasonably expect Jordan to try to turn the temperature down in an attempt to woo his detractors to his side and end the stalemate that has gripped the House GOP ever since a group of hard-liners deposed former Speaker Kevin McCarthy earlier this month.

But that isn’t what happened. Instead, Jordan dug in and his hate-mailing buddies did as well. And there was little in the way of circumspection among Jordan’s faction: At an early Friday morning meeting, one of Jordan’s closest allies, Warren Davidson, insisted that those receiving death threats deserved them. Per a summary from Punchbowl court stenographer Jake Sherman, Jordan’s fellow Ohioan told those assembled, “It’s not Team Jordan’s fault that holdouts are getting death threats. They are getting the death threats, he said, because they voted against Jordan.” It was hard to interpret this as anything other than a promise that these death threats will continue, as long as opposition to Jordan’s candidacy remains. As if to make the point even clearer, protests were organized outside several of the home offices of many of Jordan’s foes.

Jordan’s gambit didn’t work, of course. On Friday, he lost a third vote for speaker and, not long after, lost his speaker-designate status in a secret ballot taken by the Republican caucus. It’s tempting to see this as just deserts. It is, at the very least, a very funny outcome; many in the House Republican conference deserve humiliation, but arguably none so much as Jim Jordan. One might hope that his failure might serve as a lesson that will be taken by others: that the strong-arm tactics favored by Donald Trump and his followers will ultimately not only fail but lead to a counterrevolution. It is even tempting to say that the unending, repetitive failure of House Republicans to elect a speaker has been something of an awakening for many in the GOP to the threats posed by radical, increasingly powerful members aligned with Trump, like Jordan.

These outcomes remain a long way off. Jordan may have failed, but no one is paying a price for having sunk as low as his allies have, and without accountability, it’s difficult to imagine that these kinds of threats and intimidation won’t continue to be mainstreamed and redeployed in the furtherance of far-right aims. Naturally, this is partially the result of the GOP’s lurch toward authoritarianism and increasing embrace of political violence as a means of enforcing and holding onto political power.

Donald Trump routinely uses threats—both explicit and implicit—as a means of enforcing his own grip on the Republican Party. His uses his Twitter feed and public speeches to reward those who lick his boots while putting a crosshair on those who dare break with or criticize him, however lightly. These are the ambient threats that have purged the party of its remaining moderate elements as well as pushing Trumpism’s far-right detractors into silence. The larger point is this: Criticize his aims, and you jeopardize not only your place within the right-wing hierarchy but your safety as well.

Jordan’s embrace of these tactics points to another area of concern. As I argued last week, the Republican Party has long since abandoned policymaking, retreating, in large part, from governance itself. McCarthy, for instance, largely used his perch to put a spanner in the works of the legislative process while pushing the ridiculous investigations favored by right-wing media and the party’s most radical members. He was pushed out, however, for the crime of compromising—barely—twice with Democrats to keep the government open. He theoretically could have tried to save his speakership by doing further deals with Democrats but decided against it—probably because he understood that doing so would have been a bridge too far and would have brought an even fiercer excommunication than the one he received when he only lightly attempted to govern.

Without a policymaking apparatus or a productive idea about governing, however, Republicans are left with witch hunts as their primary activity and organizing purpose. Naturally, their aim will be toward burning Democrats at the stake most of the time. But there is little room to compromise on the basic existential things that the House needs to do. Political leaders in the past would have built coalitions with carrots and sticks, telling members that they would support pet causes or policies in exchange for their support. They’d get consolation prizes in the form of earmarks to take the sting out of ideological tradeoffs. They’d find common ground across the aisle to do the necessary tasks. Republicans don’t have that option now, as they lack a policy agenda. All they have are threats, which will increasingly be used to police matters of internal purity. Jim Jordan’s dream may be dead—thank God. But he and Republicans like him will continue to reach for these menacing tactics to obtain and preserve power—and keep dissidents in line.