Security requests from U.S. candidates highlight ‘potential for violence,’ domestic terrorism expert says
Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley’s request for Secret Service protection has shone a light on the simmering threat of violence in the lead-up to the 2024 U.S. election.
Haley’s campaign said Monday it requested protection from the U.S. Secret Service, a month after Haley was targeted in two swatting incidents, which involve calling in a false emergency in the hopes that it will draw a heavily-armed police response.
On Monday, the Wall Street Journal noted an increase in the number of protesters at her events in recent days, demonstrating against her support for additional aid to Ukraine and Israel. The paper noted that last week, a woman tried to rush the stage at one of Haley’s campaign events before being tackled by a member of her security detail.
Jacob Ware, a domestic terrorism researcher with the Council on Foreign Relations, says terrorism analysts usually assess threats by looking at several factors including intent, capability and opportunity — and campaign season means opportunities are rife.
“I think intent to commit violence is high across the political spectrum, but especially on the far right. And in the United States, we always have the capability to conduct violence because of our gun laws,” he said. “There’s a very poisonous mix being brewed with the great potential for violence in 2024 and beyond.”
Ware, who co-authored the book God, Guns, and Sedition: Far-Right Terrorism in America, says Haley’s request is not surprising given what he says is a rising number of threats against public figures across the political spectrum.
It also comes as the U.S. recorded its highest number of mass shootings in a single year, with more than 200 people killed in at least 38 mass shootings in 2023, according to an analysis by the Guardian.
Ware says it’s “more due to luck than a lack of desire” that the U.S. has avoided a successful high-level political assassination in recent years.
He says Haley being the target of swattings also underscores the fact that threats of violence can be aimed at both Republicans and Democrats.
Threats move from online into the real world
Maine secretary of state Shenna Bellows was swatted days after ruling that Trump should be excluded from the 2024 presidential ballot. Two judges involved in Trump trials have also been targeted. On Christmas morning, Republican congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene wrote on X, formerly Twitter, “I was just swatted. This is like the 8th time.”
Armed assailants have tracked down political figures at home on at least two occasions since the last election.
In 2022, a man who told jurors he was influenced by far-right conspiracy theories broke into the home of Democratic congresswoman Nancy Pelosi and attacked her husband with a hammer, leaving him severely injured. Earlier that year, a man armed with a gun, who told police he was upset by efforts to overturn abortion rights and loosen gun restrictions, broke into the house of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
Last month, a Philadelphia man was accused of decapitating his father, a longtime federal employee, and allegedly made a video displaying the victim’s head while calling him a traitor to his country and calling for the death of all federal officials.
Violence ‘a palpable and real concern’
Melissa Deckman, a political scientist and CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), who studies the impact of gender, religion and age on public opinion and political behaviour, says the threat of violence is “a palpable and real concern” leading up to November’s election.
An October PRRI survey found 23 per cent of Americans believe that “true American patriots may have to resort to violence to save the country.”
“You have political leaders like Donald Trump who are not willing to ratchet down that rhetoric — in fact, they’re doing the very opposite,” Deckman said. “In that context, I’m not surprised to see that Nikki Haley is asking for more security.”
Secret Service protection is usually reserved for major candidates, and polls place Haley as a longshot for the Republican nomination. Independent candidate Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. has also made multiple unsuccessful requests for Secret Service protection.
Lawmakers’ spending on personal security has ballooned since the Jan. 6, 2021, attacks on the Capitol building in an attempt to overturn U.S. President Joe Biden’s election win.
According to a Washington Post analysis, candidates running for House and Senate offices increased campaign spending on security by more than 500 per cent between the 2020 election and the 2022 midterms.
U.S. legislators report being threatened: survey
A survey by the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy organization, polled more than 1,700 state legislators and local officials in all 50 states. According to the results, over 40 per cent of state legislators said they had been threatened or attacked in the past three years.
Almost 90 per cent of respondents to the survey, released in January, said they were harassed, intimidated or stalked, and nearly one in 10 state legislators said they had been intimidated by a person wielding a weapon.
About one in five state officials and twice as many local officials said the harassment has made them less willing to work on controversial policies like gun regulation or reproductive rights. Many also say they’re now less likely to make public appearances or post on social media.
The survey found women, particularly women of colour, are disproportionately likely to face extreme abuse, including threats of a sexual nature and threats to their children.
Carmen Celestini, a post-doctoral fellow at Queen’s University’s school of religion who studies religion, extremism, conspiracy theories and politics, says the public is hearing loud opinions from extreme ends of the political spectrum, including hateful and violent rhetoric that often takes root online.
She says this results in people “coming at each other angry” rather than seeking compromise and understanding.
According to Celestini, this rhetoric is often pushed by influencers in tight-knit online communities, and sometimes bubbles up to the point where one or more members decide to take action in the real world.
As an example, Celestini cites one theory spreading online that suggests migrants coming into the U.S. through the southern border are going to cause a civil war. She says this feeds into the narrative that “there is no way out of this other than through violence.”
She says many of Trump’s fanatical supporters believe he is God’s chosen candidate and frame political issues as a battle between good and evil, intensifying the “moral panics” she says are taking place over issues like immigration, critical race theory, 2SLGBTQ+ rights and the amorphous “wokeism.”
“When they see individuals like Nikki Haley, that is someone who’s challenging the hero that’s trying to save them. So that makes them an enemy,” Celestini said.