How some members of the Republican Party have normalized the use of violent rhetoric

The Jan. 6 panel recently presented new evidence on how former President Trump stoked violence leading up to the Capitol insurrection. But the escalation and normalization of violent rhetoric has extended beyond Trump, becoming a dangerous feature of Republican campaigns and party messaging. Laura Barrón-López reports.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    The House Select Committee investigating the attack on the U.S. Capitol has presented new evidence in recent hearings on how former President Donald Trump stoked violence leading up to and on January 6.

    And, this week, the committee will focus on Trump's actions during those 187 minutes of the insurrection itself.

    But, as Laura Barrón-López reports, the escalation and normalization of violent rhetoric has extended beyond Trump, becoming a dangerous feature of Republican campaign and party messaging.

    We begin with last week's hearing.

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    A direct line from former President Donald Trump's words to violence.

    Stephen Ayres, Pleaded Guilty to Disorderly Conduct: I was hanging on every word he was saying. Everything he was putting out, I was following it.

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    Stephen Ayres was following Trump's lies that he won the 2020 presidential election. He followed Trump's tweet to be there on January 6.

    Donald Trump, Former President of the United States: We're going to the Capitol.

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    And he followed the call to march from the White House to the United States Capitol.

  • Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-FL):

    Why did you decide to march to the Capitol?

  • Stephen Ayres:

    So, we basically were just following what he said.

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    The committee charges the violence on the 6th was the culmination of weeks of escalatory rhetoric by Trump, that when all legal avenues to challenge the election failed, January 6 was the last stand, where Trump was willing to accept violence to stay in power.

    But Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a history professor at New York University who studies authoritarian governments, says the seeds of January 6 go back even further, to Trump's rise.

    When you look back at the past six years, what do you see as the watershed moments?

  • Ruth Ben-Ghiat, NYU History Professional:

    The campaign of 2016 was a watershed in terms of the beginning of a systematic attempt by Trump and people around him to shift our political culture from a democracy to an authoritarian one.

    And what that meant was, he was speaking about violence as something positive.

  • Donald Trump:

    I would like the punch him in the face, I will tell you.

  • Ruth Ben-Ghiat:

    I mean, he was in a way kind of having an emotional retraining of Americans to say violence against your neighbor, it doesn't always have to be bad.

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    In 2015, that meant rallies that ended with fistfights and assault charges. In 2017, neo-Nazis felt emboldened to march on Charlottesville.

  • Donald Trump:

    Very fine people on both sides.

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    In 2021, a deadly assault on the nation's capital.

    Ahead of this year's midterm elections, Trump's style and message are still as popular as ever, spawning a rise in the use of violent language and imagery in Republican campaign ads.

  • Fmr. Gov. Eric Greitens (R-MO):

    We're going RINO hunting.

    Jerone Davison (R), Arizona Congressional Candidate: When this rifle is the only thing standing between your family and a dozen angry Democrats in Klan hoods, you just might need that semiautomatic.

  • Ruth Ben-Ghiat:

    To get ahead in the GOP now, you need to be espousing this kind of violent rhetoric. People who are candidates, like Mehmet Oz, who is running for Senate in Pennsylvania, he used to be for gun reform.

    But you can't do that now, because the party has radicalized. So, instead, he showed himself shooting a gun, and parroting this very common propaganda point that the Second Amendment is no longer about hunting or recreation. It's to use arms to overthrow a tyrannical government.

    Mehmet Oz (R), Pennsylvania Senatorial Candidate: Our Second Amendment is not just about hunting. It's about our constitutional right to protect ourselves from intruders or an overly intrusive government.

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    In Washington, Republicans have been slow to condemn the violent rhetoric or have remained silent.

    Responding to Eric Greitens' ad targeting Republicans in name only, known as RINOs, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said it was up to individuals to decide what they will accept.

  • Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY):

    Well, I think that's something that voters in the Missouri Republican primary need to take a look at.

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    And, in the House, members of GOP leadership have themselves amplified the same racist conspiracies espoused by mass shooters.

    In May, a mass shooter killed 10 people in a Buffalo New York grocery store. His online posts showed he was inspired by the racist and antisemitic — quote — "Great Replacement conspiracy," writing that: "Mass immigration will disenfranchise us, subvert our nations and destroy our communities."

    Experts saw echoes of that ideology in a Facebook ad posted last year by the third-ranking Republican in the House, Representative Elise Stefanik of New York. The ad accused Democrats of planning a "permanent election insurrection" through a plan to grant amnesty to 11 million illegal immigrants, "who would overthrow our current electorate and create a permanent liberal majority in Washington."

    Stefanik's spokesperson called criticism that she was amplifying the Great Replacement Theory a disgusting low for the left.

    Republicans have sought to label Democrats as equal actors in encouraging violence by pointing to some Black Lives Matter protests that devolved into looting and damaged property. Republicans have also tried to censure a Democratic congresswoman for urging protesters to get confrontational.

  • Ruth Ben-Ghiat:

    Democratic politicians, they may use heated words, but they do not pose in their campaign ads or as sitting lawmakers with assault weapons, saying that these assault weapons, you could use them to overthrow the government. They do not espouse Oath Keepers and other extremists.

    And so it's not that you can never criticize the Democrats, but it is a false equivalency. And January 6 is proof of that.

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    More than a year after the attack, Trump refers to the rioters who stormed the Capitol as patriots who deserve pardons.

  • Donald Trump:

    If I run and if I win, we will treat those people from January 6 fairly. We will treat them fairly.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • Donald Trump:

    And if it requires pardons, we will give them pardons.

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    Ben-Ghiat diagnoses Trump's message and the Republicans who stand by him as modern authoritarianism.

  • Ruth Ben-Ghiat:

    Trump presented himself as a victim of a whole democratic system that was out to get him, and the only way to right this wrong was through violence, and that violence would be purifying, it would be patriotic.

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    She doesn't see a clear exit ramp.

  • Ruth Ben-Ghiat:

    There hasn't been a moment like this with a strict parallel, where you have a bipartisan system in which one of those two parties has left democracy, to the point of fomenting a coup attempt.

    And they are unrepentant. And the leader and beneficiary of that coup attempt which failed is still in good standing. The other wild card is the availability of guns. So we're in uncharted terrain.

  • Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL):

    I want to take a moment now to speak directly to my fellow Republicans.

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    Congressman Adam Kinzinger, one of just two Republicans on the January 6 Committee, released disturbing voice-mails his office recently received.

  • Person:

    I guess I can't say a whole lot more other, than I hope you naturally die as quickly as (EXPLETIVE DELETED) possible, you (EXPLETIVE DELETED) piece of (EXPLETIVE DELETED).

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    What remains unclear is how to reverse the course of escalating violent rhetoric and embrace of violence within the GOP and a belief among nearly a third of Republican voters that a civil war may be justified.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Laura Barrón-López.

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