GOP’s Toxic, Hateful Rhetoric Provokes Real-World Political Violence

Interview with Ruth Ben-Ghiat, history professor at New York University, conducted by Scott Harris

In May, an 18-year-old white supremacist shot to death black shoppers at a Buffalo, New York supermarket, killing 10 and injuring 3 others. Last weekend, a 22-year-old gunman entered Club Q, an LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado Springs, Colorado,  and opened fire with his AR- 15 assault rifle, killing 5 people and injuring 25 others, before 2 patrons stopped him. On Oct. 28, Paul Pelosi, the husband of Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, was assaulted by a man who broke into the couple’s San Francisco home and attacked him with a hammer, with the stated intention of kidnapping and harming Nancy Pelosi.

Recent racist attacks in the U.S. include the 2015 murder of nine African Americans at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston, South Carolina; the shooting deaths of four Asian Americans in Atlanta in 2021; the massacre of 22 Mexicans and Latinos at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas in 2019 and the murder of 11 Jewish American at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh the same year.

In the years since Donald Trump became president, there’s been a dramatic rise in political violence carried out by right-wing extremists across the U.S. that has included threats against sitting members of Congress, election officials, healthcare workers and schoolteachers. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Ruth Ben-Ghiat, professor of  history at New York University, who examines the Republican party’s culture war that targets the LGBTQ and trans community, blacks, immigrants, Asians, Jews and demonizes Democrats, instigating real world political violence.

RUTH BEN-GHIAT: Yeah, unfortunately, it meets the criteria of an authoritarian party. And it behaves like an authoritarian party starting with, of course, Trump’s presidency, this submission to a cult leader. And the reason Trump is so dangerous is that he’s not just a politician — and also all the conflicts of interest have started up again — but he’s a cult leader. And this was manifested most obviously in his followers.

And, you know, Jan. 6 was very much the outcome of cult dynamics. He called the faithful to rescue him because he was, you know, in trouble and had something stolen from him and they were going to rescue him.

But the GOP submitted to a kind of authoritarian discipline. And so what’s happened over the years — and it’s accelerated after he left — he set it up and it’s going on its own. You can’t have any dissent within the party to the extent where, Republicans who voted to impeach Trump in February 2021 had to buy body armor because they were getting death threats. And you remember some of the candidates — Eric Greitens and others — running for office had this RINO (Republican in Name Only) they were hunting. They were going to hunt down with guns, renegade Republicans. So that’s very much an authoritarian dynamic.

And, of course, demonizing the political opposition. And then you arrive at events and incidents such as an attempt to assassinate Nancy Pelosi. When you are changing the political culture of your party to support autocracy, you need as many lawless and criminal people in the political class. So if you look, it’s like a big renewal of the party that’s going on. This is like the big picture. So who’s going out? People like Liz Cheney, Adam Kinzinger, people who stand up for the rule of law. And who’s coming in — lawless people are being celebrated like Kyle Rittenhouse. And so you need those people who will espouse the ideals of intolerance and violence to be your political class.

And that’s why so many of them had those ads where they were pictured with guns. And luckily, some of them lost, like Dr. Oz. But the fact that the party supports that culture, those are the qualities that it wants you to have to be its lawmaker. That’s very disturbing. And it’s very authoritarian.

SCOTT HARRIS: Professor Ben-Ghiat, we’ve seen a real rise in political violence across the country. Of course, it was tragic anti-LGBTQ attacks — the Pulse nightclub some years ago—  as well as the horribly violent attack at the gay nightclub in Colorado Springs just this past weekend. And then, of course, we saw the assault on Nancy Pelosi’s apartment where a man assaulted her husband with a hammer. How should this nation respond, do you believe, to rising political violence, including, of course, the Republicans who have an armed wing these days in militia groups, including the Oath Keepers, the Proud Boys, the Three Percenters and others?

RUTH BEN-GHIAT: Yeah, I’m glad you mentioned the militia wing because they are a de facto paramilitary. And many people don’t know that Trump and other GOP elites use those extremist groups as bodyguards for many years. Like all during the Trump presidency, he used the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys as bodyguards. So Jan. 6, where they came to be of service to him and Roger Stone, etc., they were just doing what they’d already been doing.

So some of them lost, like Mark Finchem, who was candidate for secretary of state in Arizona. And he is a proud self-proclaimed Oath Keeper. But there are others who won. And so, the rhetorical question is, “What happens to a democracy when one of the parties has extremists?” These are anti-government extremists who believe that violence is the way you do politics. Violence is the way you change history. And that’s what Jan. 6 was.

So what happens when those people become the lawmakers? Then you get fascism, which is what I started studying many years ago for Italy. So that’s part of the challenge. And the other is to understand how this is happening. And again, it comes from history and it’s being repeated today. The way that you get people to be willing to engage in political violence, including in their communities or to tolerate it, is that you have to get them into a kind of survivalist mentality. It goes beyond polarization. Polarization is like “us versus them. We’re agreeing to disagree. We have nothing in common.”

Survivalism is “It’s me or you and only one of us is going to survive.” And so the GOP has been propagating a lot of survivalist thought, such as Great Replacement Theory. That’s the ultimate survivalist thing. It’s that you are going to be extinguished. The whites are going to be extinguished by nonwhites.

So you have to get people into a state of feeling there’s kind of a live threat, an existential threat. And, of course, you know, back in the day, Hitler did this with the Jews. The Jews were out to get us. I’m quite concerned about that. But it’s important if you know people to reach out to them, people who might benefit from a conversation.

Republicans, you know, you can’t give up on these people. That’s the other lesson because anti-polarization and anti-political violence begins with dialogue.

Ruth Ben-Ghiat is also author of “Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present.” Her website can be found at and her Lucid Substack newsletter can be found at

Listen to Scott Harris’ in-depth interview with Ruth Ben-Ghiat (28:30) and see more articles and opinion pieces in the Related Links section of this page.

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