Will a rise in right-wing populism lead to more acts of political violence?

On June 16th, 2016, a British Member of Parliament (MP), Jo Cox, was shot and killed just after a routine meeting with constituents. Cox was a proponent of peace in Syria and the rights of Syrian refugees. As the representative of a diverse district, she had advocated for religious and cultural toleration. Like fellow Labor MPs, she campaigned for Britain to remain in the European Union. Her views were strong and progressive, yet not so radical as to attract particular attention or criticism for their deviation from the norm. They represented one ideological position among many in a modern liberal democracy—and like any citizen holding any ideological position in such a political climate, Cox should not have feared holding them.

Her killer, Thomas Mair, gave his name in court as “death to traitors, freedom for Britain.” He owned Nazi books and other paraphernalia in his home and allegedly had ties to a U.S. neo-Nazi organization. His views were radical without a doubt, but in modern liberal democracies, it is supposed to be rare for people to commit acts of violence for such views.

In coming years, that may change. An equally sinister political trend may be the reason why.

The rise of right-wing populism, apparent everywhere from Eastern European parliaments to presidential campaign rallies across the United States, is an increasingly concerning trend in world politics. Its causes are interrelated. Economic anxiety has grown among low-skilled workers whose jobs have been outsourced to foreign countries. Immigration and other demographic trends have led to more racial, religious, and cultural diversity in societies that were once relatively homogeneous. Social media—and the near-instantaneous connection and communication it brings—has contributed to a media culture where any individual can find a like-minded network through which to perceive the world. These echo chambers can offer the dangerous combination of radical ideas or speech and a group mentality, often resulting in further radicalization. Factual arguments often lose out to exaggerated or completely falsified ones as people share information with those likely to agree without seeking verification.

Taken together, economic strife, ingrained bigotry, and a perceived loss of power by white men to people of color, women, immigrants, and other groups creates a political environment ripe for exploitation by a certain kind of populist movement. These movements disdain “political correctness” in order to speak bluntly about their perceived grievances. They attack the existing political establishment, whether liberal or conservative. They treat false statements as facts so long as these statements are gratifying to their supporters—turning honesty into agreement rather than truthfulness.

“Taken together, economic strife, ingrained bigotry, and a perceived loss of power by white men to people of color, women, immigrants, and other groups creates a political environment ripe for exploitation by a certain kind of populist movement. These movements disdain “political correctness” in order to speak bluntly about their perceived grievances.”

Such movements rest on a fundamental need to take the country back from an implied “other.” The British “Leave” campaign, led by the UK Independence Party, and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in the United States—which has officially secured the Republican nomination—have exemplified this. Both movements are anti-establishment: for one that establishment is the European Union and the British political leaders who support it, and for the other it is Washington, D.C. Both have made immigration a key issue for their respective campaigns, and have used it to make coded and explicit racial appeals to their bases. By rhetorically punching both upwards at established political power and downwards at scapegoated marginalized groups, these movements—and others like them—make it clear to their supporters that they have been surrounded and must fight back.

A typical supporter may choose to do their part in restoring the perceived greatness and purity of their cause by voting for a certain candidate or movement. Many have, and many will. In a democracy, though their choices may not be the most educated or practical, that vote must be accepted.

Yet as Britain has now seen, a certain segment of these right-wing populists are not content with simply voting for their views. The causal factors are still a matter of debate—untreated mental illness, a history of abuse, even exposure to constant statements that promote aggressive action. What is certain is that there are some who will take their fear and bigotry, validated by leaders who use such attitudes to win votes, and act on it—committing acts of political violence that are dangerous to society as a whole.

The killing of Jo Cox was an extreme example. Toxic political rhetoric alone is not enough to drive someone to commit such an act. But combined with pre-existing mental conditions, violent tendencies, or bigoted views, extremist political rhetoric can and has led to similar actions in other modern democracies, such as the recent shooting in Orlando, Florida and the mass murder committed in Norway by Anders Breivik in 2011.

Across the Atlantic, calls to violence and disorder are being issued – and in some cases, enacted – in support of Trump and his political ideology. One man recently called for “those that support liberty and freedom to come (to the Republican National Convention) lawfully armed with lethal and non-lethal weaponry” in order to defend the Republican nominee, and specifically to confront Black Lives Matter activists. His narrow framing of “liberty and freedom,” as though the activists do not have the freedom to protest, is apparent here, as well as the need to defend these ideals from “outsiders.”

It is hard not to hear an echo of calls to “take our country back” reflected in statements like these. Political leaders who make these appeals may not state exactly whom the country must be taken back from, but the actions of their supporters make it disturbingly clear. People of color, immigrants, and those who speak out in support of them are already physically endangered by the current political climate.

We are left wondering: who will they come for next, and who will be left to speak for them.

Image: Donald Trump with supporters. (Gage Skidmore/Flickr, Editorial Use)


Meghan Bodette will be attending Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in the fall of 2016. She is interested in international relations theory and foreign policy, is studying Spanish and Russian, and has volunteered with a presidential campaign. Follow her on Twitter and Medium.

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