The Violent Far-Right Terrorist Threat to the Republican Party and American Conservatism
Analysis of rising domestic far-right terrorism typically focuses on the threat it poses to minority communities, the political left, and liberal democracy. Not much attention has been given to the danger it poses to the broader American right and institutions typically cherished by conservatives. In this three-part series, CFR research fellow Jacob Ware assesses the violent far-right and white supremacist terrorist threat to these entities, including the Republican Party, the United States military, and American law enforcement.
The far right is wreaking havoc on the Republican Party’s electoral prospects. Since former President Donald Trump’s surprise election victory in 2016, the Republican Party has suffered a series of defeats at the ballot box, including the recent midterms, with postmortems often pointing to extreme, Trump-aligned candidates embraced by the party as being unpalatable for the general electorate, and therefore sinking the party’s prospects.
Terrorism and Counterterrorism
But those who see election and policy defeats as the far right’s main or only danger to the Republican Party overlook a far more concrete peril: a direct and imminent terrorist threat to the party and its leaders. In fact, in the post-Trump era, Republican politicians are just as frequently targeted by conspiracy theories and hateful rhetoric spread by the violent far right as more typical victims on the political left. During the Trump administration, longstanding anti-government ideology—which has historically inspired such violence as the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, the deadliest modern domestic terrorist attack in U.S. history—distilled into an anti-democratic ideology, with Trump’s anti-establishment veneer allowing him and his party to speak directly to those historically distrustful of the federal government and its institutions, and garner their support.
Given that mindset, “Republican” could be redefined at will—meaning that even staunch conservatives were dubbed RINOs (“Republican In Name Only”) and targeted for excommunication for not following the Trumpian line. And since Trump’s last defeat was confirmed in late 2020, Republicans deemed insufficiently loyal to his claims of electoral wrongdoing have been frequently targeted, with punishments ranging from primary challenges to assassination. The most serious threat struck on January 6, 2021, when a mob stormed the U.S. Capitol seeking to halt the certification of the vote. “Hang Mike Pence,” they bayed, erecting a gallows outside the building and missing the vice president’s escape by just seconds.
The threats against Republican politicians—whether explicit or implicit—often come from their conservative political rivals. In one campaign ad, Missouri Senate candidate Eric Greitens, flanked by heavily-armed commandos in tactical gear, stormed into a home and proudly declared, “Join the MAGA crew. Get a RINO hunting permit.” Last September, after Mitch McConnell agreed to a government funding deal, Trump declared on his Truth Social site that McConnell “has a DEATH WISH.” Adam Kinzinger and Liz Cheney, the two Republicans who served on the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol, received a deluge of violent threats. One caller told the former, “Gonna get your wife, gonna get your kids.” A Trump-supporting constituent in New York’s 2nd District pled guilty to threatening to kill Representative Andrew Garbarino after the congressman was one of thirteen House Republicans to join Democrats in voting for an infrastructure bill.
And perhaps most seriously, in December, a failed Republican candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives from Texas, Douglas Keith Casey, was charged with threatening to kill Congressman Randy Weber, alleging that Weber had committed fraud in the primary election—despite Weber, a staunch conservative, having previously been 1 of 126 House Republicans to sign a Texas Supreme Court amicus brief in 2020 seeking to undo the presidential election results in several key states. Representatives of both parties now spend more than ever on security, with Capitol Police Chief J. Thomas Manger testifying last January that the force has doubled its agents working on threats against lawmakers. As scholars Colin P. Clarke and Tim Wilson write, for the modern violent far-right in its interactions with its own party, “disagreement is akin to treachery and violence can have a cleansing effect.”
Threats, both political and violent, are also frequently leveled at the party itself. At a so-called “Million MAGA March” on December 12, 2020, in Washington DC, Nick Fuentes, an anti-Semitic and white supremacist live streamer, led supporters in a chant of “Destroy the GOP.” Government officials are also often targeted. Days after the 2020 election, former White House official Stephen Bannon called for Christopher Wray, a lifelong Republican nominated by Trump to be director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Anthony Fauci to be beheaded, after which he would “put the heads on pikes, I’d put them at the two corners of the White House, as a warning to federal bureaucrats: you either get with the program or you’re gone.” Heightened tensions and rhetoric during Trump’s efforts to overturn the election results also left the U.S. vulnerable to foreign interference—Iran, for instance, published a hit list online called “Enemies of the People” targeting multiple officials who refused to accept claims of voter fraud.
Terrorism and Counterterrorism
And the political right’s most extreme fringe, featuring neo-Nazis and white supremacists, freely threatens both the right and left as part of their broader assault against the liberal democratic order. Their so-called “accelerationist” terrorist strategy, which seeks to commit chaotic violence in order to spark a broader conflagration, welcomes violence against its own, believing that violence begets violence and that the extremists will thrive in the aftermath. In January 2020, a group of neo-Nazis affiliated with an organization called The Base was arrested for plotting to attack that month’s large gun rights rally in Richmond, Virginia. Opening fire on pro-Second Amendment protestors, they hoped, would spark a firefight between the protestors and police, accelerating societal collapse.
Republican leaders too have often turned a blind eye to the party’s extreme fringe, perhaps reluctant to be seen as more interested in internecine criticism than battling political opponents on the left. But what they have failed to calculate is that the violent extremists are not easily controllable—and intend to stick to their demands. For instance, although his primary target was Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, one of the plotters planning to kidnap the governor in 2020 had also threatened Trump, writing on Facebook, “True colors shining through, wanna hang this mf’er too!!!” An earlier plot targeted Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, and her family for their Jewish faith.
Of course, to date the most serious violent plots to the political right have indisputably come from the extreme left. In June 2017, a far-left terrorist attempted an ambitious decapitation of the Republican Party, seriously wounding House Majority Whip Steve Scalise before being killed by the congressman’s Capitol Police detail (without whom it “would have been a massacre,” according to one congressman). And in June 2022, a far-left extremist traveled to the home of conservative Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh planning to assassinate him, before calling the police on himself. Indeed, Democrats must also be more outspoken against violent elements in their midst. As Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco warned after the plot against Kavanaugh, “We can’t come together on this topic without acknowledging and condemning the appalling rise in violence that we have seen from a range of ideologies directed at public officials.”
But the MAGA wing of the Republican Party’s efforts to paint any Republican refusing to align on political issues such as election denialism as traitorous quislings guilty of collaborating with leftists to oversee the invasion of socialism in America have placed those figures squarely in the crosshairs of the far-right’s small, violent fringe. The threat against those leaders is real and continuing. Trump today retains an overwhelming power to deploy vitriol and violence against his political rivals. Should his loyalty shift away from the Republican Party, for instance following a defeat in the 2024 primary, the party writ large could be the new target for extremists who stand loyally at his side. A recent study by the UC Davis violence prevention research program and the California Firearm Violence Research Center found that “MAGA Republicans were substantially more likely than others to consider violence usually or always justified.” The Christian Science Monitor additionally noted that a “recent wave of indictments shows that pro-Trump individuals may be as likely to level death threats against Republicans as Democrats.”
Much ink has been spilled on the ideological civil war within the Republican Party, pitting conservatives like Mitch McConnell and the now-expelled Paul Ryan against a Trumpian wing defined more by authoritarian tendencies on election integrity, the press, and blind loyalty to a revered central figure. But not as much analysis has explored the risk of violent fratricidal conflict against Republicans deemed insufficiently dedicated to the MAGA orthodoxy. As analysts Mary McCord and Jacob Glick warn, “By making strides to mainstream the political violence and illiberalism that they espouse, private paramilitaries have established themselves as a sinister force in American life that has endured long after Trump’s term ended.”
In other words, whether rank-and-file Republicans care about the safety of their leaders or supporters, about the future of the country and its constitution, about the reality that political opponents are successfully painting them with the same brush as this radical fringe, or about their own chances of victory in 2024, it is past time for them to vigorously denounce and excommunicate the violent far-right whenever and wherever it rears its ugly head.