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We’re already too comfortable with the violent far right

In Wisconsin and beyond, it’s long past time to confront the reality of the authoritarian threat.
Illustration: Ghosts and ghouls are shown swarming about the Wisconsin Capitol. Illustration by Maggie Denman.
Illustration: Ghosts and ghouls are shown swarming about the Wisconsin Capitol. Illustration by Maggie Denman.

In Wisconsin and beyond, it’s long past time to confront the reality of the authoritarian threat.

Each week in Wisconsin politics brings an abundance of bad policies, bad takes, and bad actors. In our recurring feature, Capitol Punishments, we bring you the week’s highlights (or low-lights) from the state Legislature and beyond.

Even today, I fall for it. Something truly catastrophic happens illustrating how dangerous and deranged the far right has become, and I still hope that this will be the moment the spell is broken. This will be the moment that it will finally sink in just how beyond the pale the far right has gone and how closely behind the rest of the Republican party is going. And I hope beyond hope that it will be the last straw and there will be a shift away from this dangerous road we’re on. 

Less than 24 hours after a man broke into House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s home and attacked her husband, Paul Pelosi, with a hammer, right-wing talking heads are already churning out more palatable versions of the story for their audience based on false reports that came out early in the news coverage. 

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Unfortunately this is also a media story. The race to be the first outlet with a story has become a race to put out the most incorrect, one-sided (usually from police), decontextualized version of the story, which has fed mistrust of the media and provided ample material for the construction of conspiracy theories.

Granted, the people who have latched onto this farcical truthiness concoction are the usual suspects: Donald Trump Jr., Sen. Ted Cruz, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene. Also Elon Musk, who I normally try to ignore, but is unfortunately now the owner of Twitter. (If anyone wants to launch a not-terrible social media platform, now is the time!)

But while the fringes dance in denial, the centrists are trying to turn the story into both-sides; New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu compared the attack on Pelosi to “the summer of 2020 when you saw cities burning” and claimed political violence was a problem “on both sides of the aisle.”

As Timothy Noah of The New Republic wrote, “That isn’t true. America has a problem with political violence against Democrats.”

In part, this is a case of the slow-boiling frog, but I think there’s something else at play here. People with a black-and-white view of the world believe that people who do evil things do so knowing they are making a deliberate choice to be evil. 

The reality is that very few people think of themselves as the bad guy; in fact, look at many of the evils done throughout history and you’ll find multiple actors who believed that they were not only doing good, but righteous. And once people start to believe that, it’s very difficult for them to face reality, much less admit it publicly.

To acknowledge that Paul Pelosi’s attacker was a far-right conspiracy theorist is to admit that the vitriol Republicans have stirred up against Nancy Pelosi isn’t just talk; it has consequences. This isn’t just a national issue; we’re seeing it right here in Wisconsin. 

Look at the assassination of a retired Wisconsin judge by a man who had a hit list that included Gov. Tony Evers, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Mitch McConnell.

Look at what happened in Kiel, Wisconsin, where lawyers from Wisconsin Institute of Law and Liberty poured gas on the already-burning anti-LGBTQ—especially anti-transgender—contingent of the far right, and sparked a terrorism campaign. Along the same vein, last week police were called into a Wauwatosa School Board meeting that was derailed by two outside extremist hate groups—Moms for Liberty and Gays Against Groomers.

(Side note: many people are seeing parallels between our time and pre-World War II due to the rise in anti-Semitism. But American history education tends to skip over two big components of the Nazi platform that led to the party gaining power: anti-Communism and anti-LGBTQ sentiment, particularly anti-trangenderism.)

Despite the evidence that dangerous rhetoric begets dangerous actions, we’re continuing to see this rhetoric escalate. Election clerks are still having to respond to 2020 election conspiracies and a shortage of clerks because people don’t want to risk getting into the crosshairs. Harry Wait, a 2020 election conspiracy theorist who illegally obtained absentee ballots, posted “To the gulags for Meagan Wolfe, Ann Jacobs, and other derelict [Wisconsin Elections Commission] officials.”

The deluded self-righteousness of the far right—convincing themselves that they are good and that “the libs” are evil—is putting democracy itself at risk. In 50/50 Wisconsin we have a Republican gubernatorial candidate telling supporters that if he wins “Republicans will never lose another election in Wisconsin.” Wisconsin’s senior senator told supporters that Democrats “are fundamentally destroying this country. They have to be stopped. They have to be defeated. They need a real shellacking.”

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I wish I had the answers for what needs to happen to change course. (If someone does, please contact me.) My advice for this upcoming midterm election: vote and brace yourself.

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