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Political violence in the US has always been there, waiting to erupt

The attack on the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband is not an isolated incident.

By Emily Tamkin

On Friday (28 October) a man entered the home of the US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi with a hammer, shouting “Where’s Nancy?” She was not at home. He then attacked her husband, Paul, 82, who had to have surgery on his skull. Authorities fear that the suspect, a man with a years-long history of blogging hateful conspiracy theories who has been arrested and is to appear in court tomorrow (1 November), may also have been planning to target others.

Also on Friday, a Trump-appointed judge in Arizona refused to rule against groups “monitoring” ballot boxes. Officials in Arizona have expressed concern about people showing up masked and armed to watch ballot boxes, which some have argued constitutes voter intimidation. After all, why do people – people who aren’t formally involved with elections – need to watch others drop off their ballots? And why do they need to be holding a gun to do it?

At first glance, these two events are unrelated. But though they are distinct – a violent attack on someone in their home is not the same as a court decision – they are linked in one key way: both speak to the rise of political violence, both threatened and actual, from the American right in the United States today.

The reason that Donald Trump was asked to condemn the far-right group the Proud Boys during a 2020 presidential election debate – and the reason it was so appalling that he, the incumbent, instead asked them to “stand back and stand by” – is that political violence is kept at bay in no small part through political norms. There isn’t really anything keeping us from attacking each other all the time here in the US, awash as it is with guns. Why don’t we do it? Because we don’t. Until we do.

Another way of putting this is that the storming of the Capitol on 6 January 2021 could have happened at any other point. But the losers in past elections didn’t encourage their supporters to come to Washington and call on them to march to the Capitol. This is part of why Trump’s warnings of violence against his political enemies are understood not as warnings at all, but threats.

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It would be useful, given all of this, if other Republican leaders stood up and clearly denounced violence. Here in reality, however, that is not taking place. Some, like Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, did speak up to quickly and clearly denounce violence. Glenn Youngkin, the governor of Virginia, a Republican once hailed by some as a moderate answer to Trump, said in a political speech on Friday, hours after the attack: “Speaker Pelosi’s husband had a break-in last night in their house, and he was assaulted. There’s no room for violence anywhere, but we’re gonna send her back to be with him in California. That’s what we’re going to go do.” He made it a joke.

Others, like Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader, stayed quiet in the hours after the attack. The far-right Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, meanwhile, blamed “violence and crime in Joe Biden’s America” and offered, “It shouldn’t happen to Paul Pelosi. It shouldn’t happen to innocent Americans. It shouldn’t happen to me.”

There is violence in Biden’s America, but the political violence isn’t coming from Biden, and it isn’t only targeted at politicians and their spouses. In addition to Arizona, there have been reports from Colorado of “volunteers”, some of whom were allegedly urged to carry guns, going door to door to question residents about their plans to vote under the auspices of tackling voter fraud. There is no room for political violence in a democratic system – unless, of course, people decide to make room.

[See also: Why the US midterm elections matter]