The New Wave
2024 and The Rising Tide of American Political Violence
I’ve written extensively in the past on the threat that hyperpartisanship, disinformation, and the degradation of democratic norms can have on national security. Disinformation-driven political violence is a key plot point of my novel EX SUPRA, and something that worries me when I think about our American future just as much as the threat from the Chinese Communist Party. Jack Murphy once wrote about America’s forthcoming “Years of Lead” and I’m starting to think that time has arrived. After a holiday week that featured a lot of personal discussion on what it means to be American, the ongoing political violence and upcoming presidential election in the United States and conflict around the world, I thought I’d take some time to talk through how we got here, the drivers of political violence in 2024, and what it all means for American security and democracy.
21st Century Breakdown
Political chaos is an integral, if frustrating, trait of the American democratic process. Violence is not. The very fine line between chaos and catastrophe in American democracy rests in the belief that emotional expression around and at the ballot box is perfectly natural, so long as that expression neither restricts nor coerces the voter. Democratic institutions and norms such as an independent judiciary and the rule of law, an effective if messy legislative process, and an executive kept in check are all just as important to our way of life. It matters that we don’t choose violence, and it matters that the American people do not see violence as an effective alternative to the vote. “Bullets over Ballots” should never be the preferred method of domestic political change, but more and more Americans view violence as necessary in order to protect “their” way of life, regardless of what that way of life may be. Years of hyperpartisanship and violent and absurd media rhetoric have only made Americans more susceptible to calls to action by ambitious radicals and collective psychological triggers. When everything matters, when there is no room for compromise, when you think the system is rigged…the only option left is violence.
More than a decade ago, the American right began a shift towards violence as a means for political change that emerged from the Tea Party movement. The movement itself was not violent, and most members were not and are not violent radicals, but the rhetoric invoking the American Revolution, tying economic and civil rights to firearm ownership under a black Democratic president, laid the groundwork for the right-wing populist, political violence that escalated during the Trump administration, spurred on by his rhetoric that culminated in the January 6 insurrection and QAnon conspiracies, spread by a collection of unhinged influencers and right-wing militant factions.
On the left, the origins of modern radicalism began around the same time as the Tea Party, with Occupy Wall Street. OWS was not a violent movement either nor were most of its participants, but its failure to effect meaningful economic change through progressive politics under Obama brought about a similar dissatisfaction that would bring radicals together in gentrified locales like San Francisco and Brooklyn. When the Trump administration came to power, the far-left grew increasingly frustrated with the ability of the Democratic Party to stop the far-right policies of the Trump administration. Room for nuance and moderation, key pillars of the modern Democratic Party, grew smaller among the progressive base who were horrified and often radicalized by the policies and rhetoric of the Trump administration. Despite the election of President Joe Biden in 2020, the angst in the far-left community only grew and remained focused on a platform of “no compromise” after it became clear that the far-right was willing to overturn democracy on January 6 in order to stay in power. January 6 told everyone on the far right and left that violence was OK, if not necessary, because the government couldn’t get the job done on its own and the other side wasn’t playing fair. In other words, the far right radicalized a far left that remained mostly dormant since the 70s. And in fact, is still far less commonplace in progressive politics than far-right rhetoric in grassroots conservative politics. With the events and aftermath of October 7, 2023, however, that is changing.
The thing about radicalization is that once radicalized, once you not only consume radical media and rhetoric, but really buy into it, you begin to see everything through that lens. It’s a natural extension of the human need to connect patterns and find meaning through a narrative worldview. You might have been radicalized by January 6th but the group of friends you run with goes down a rabbit hole of disinformation on Israel-Gaza, and you end up digesting the anti-Semitic rant of some neckbeard influencer that ends with you chasing down Jewish students on campus. Social media accelerates this evolution and makes it much harder to escape, we know this from documentation of those radicalized by QAnon. The more offline QAnoners were, the less inclined they were to be emotionally aggravated and radical in their thinking. This doesn’t mean logging off is the answer to everything, but being perpetually online helps close the circuit between radical thoughts and radical acts.
Since January 6, 2021, the violent and hysterical rhetoric of the radical segments of politics has only grown. Conspiracies are abound from QAnon to BlueAnon concerning schemes to overturn or rig the next election, state-level politics, particularly on the right, have grown only more radical as governors and legislatures seek to pursue the most radical agendas in the face of the popular will. In the face of political incompetence, social media-driven disinformation, and the collective trauma of COVID-19, Gen Z is shaping up to be a politically radical (and divided) generation on par with the Baby Boomers of the 60s and 70s. However, the methods of violence are shifting. 2020 was dominated by forms of collective violence: riots and insurrection. What we are seeing more commonly now are individual forms of violence effected by individuals and small groups on behalf of radical causes from white supremacy to anti-colonial Marxism. (Note: While mass protests and counterprotests will continue through 2024 as passions run high, these are distinctly not forms of violence, no matter what anyone says.)
Quite simply, radicals on both sides of the political spectrum no longer view the system as something they can work within. And while this is always true to a degree, the cause for concern at the policy level is the recruitment and radicalization of those who would otherwise not be involved with political violence, driven both by circumstance and disinformation. While disinformation can come from anywhere, the intersection of foreign influence and domestic politics should be most concerning. From 2015-2020, Russian disinformation campaigns were the most effective and problematic to say the least. But other countries and non-state actors, both rivals and middle powers, have jumped on board with varying degrees of success. Even more concerning is the impact of foreign events on domestic radicalization independent of disinformation campaigns by foreign powers. These are harder to predict and harder to manage, most often because our domestic politics have laid the groundwork for those events to trigger violent action by political radicals. This is a very fancy way of saying that what happens over there really matters over here when individuals so far from the battlefield can find cause with an enemy because their domestic politics align more with a foreign power’s propaganda or cause than with American democracy. The collective hyperpartisan rhetoric has inadvertently created sleeper cells of radicals waiting for their chosen cause’s turn to make headlines.
Looking forward to 2024, the next year is shaping up to be rife with potential for a new wave of political violence in the United States. What can we expect as potential triggers for a new wave of political violence in America? Well, there’s actually quite a few key events to watch. (Note: This is not all-encompassing, and there’s obviously more than a few additional particular domestic issues in the US that could also drive greater violence)
Israel-Palestine Conflict: As of today, the most visible driver of political violence in America is the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas. Without getting into the conflict, it is fair to say that the resurgence of Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism is driving shootings, arson, threats, and intimidation across the United States. These forms of hatred have long been a part of radical American politics, but most recent conflict has brought them to the forefront of American politics once again. As the conflict continues, especially if it widens, you can expect ever greater and more horrifying attacks on both communities in the United States. If this conflict continues for some time, it is likely that the violence and radicalism driven by the conflict will impact both intra-party and interparty politics and rhetoric in the United States, only perpetuating hate and violence through the 2024 election.
The 2024 American Election: It’s not yet clear how the election will shape up in terms of associated political violence. This is mostly because it very well depends upon 1) who wins the GOP primary 2) whether there is a serious third party candidate that drives radicals to the polls (making them invested in the outcome) and 3) how close the results are next November and whether or not that invites intervention by SCOTUS or Congress. Short of a major shock to the system at the ballot box or during a potential transition, you can expect violence here to be driven by the individual, not the collective. How other events, like conflict in the Middle East, Pacific, or Europe, impact disinformation campaigns that target the election will also place a serious role.
The 2024 Taiwan Election: But Tony, who besides a bunch of China nerds cares about who wins in January 2024? Well, for starters, Beijing cares a helluva lot. In fact, during the Xi-Biden meeting a few weeks ago, the CCP side brought up proposed efforts to influence the Taiwanese government during the election away from “pro-independence” elements. Now, we as Americans should care more about the democratic process than the result in Taiwan as good allies, but yeah the DPP is certainly more pro-American and leans closer to independence than the KMT. The CCP certainly doesn’t like any party besides itself, but it really hates William Lai and the DPP. It would really hate if the DPP won, and certainly sees Taiwan as growing closer to crossing Beijing’s red line of Taiwanese independence (what they would see as inviting war). Please note I’m simply explaining the CCP’s perspective, I don’t particularly care that they hate democracy, so long as we’re ready to defend it. (This is also a plot point of EX SUPRA.)
Anyway, how does this factor into American domestic issues? Well, the CCP has been working hard to improve its disinformation capabilities from control of TikTok, financial influence over global US companies, and through more traditional means such as targeting diaspora discourse and race relations in the US, and building relationships with Beijing-friendly politicians. Should a new Taiwan crisis emerge in 2024, expect it to not only be the center of American political debate, expect PRC influencers to be working overtime to drive a divide in the US and Taiwan by any means necessary, including trying to distract the US with problems at home.
Russia-Ukraine Conflict: Going into the third year of the war, the Russians will do whatever they can to ensure the US populace, and particularly Congress, remains divided and unenthusiastic for support to Ukraine. And if they can’t do that, they’ll fan the flames of other fires to distract us. Russian disinformation in the US evolved from one focused on domestic US political extremism to one focused around US-Ukraine relations. Radical, particularly isolationist, US politicians increasingly buy into anti-Ukraine rhetoric because they see it to their domestic political advantage (though I’m sure a few are true believers). The theme throughout all of these potential triggers is how domestic actors see foreign conflict as an advantage to their political agenda and that is a tale as old as time. As for disinformation around Ukraine, it hasn’t been a direct driver of violence in the US, but it has aided the rise of radicals who perpetuate radical political rhetoric around election denial on the right and the “anti-imperial” left that has been found to flirt and take funding from regimes in Moscow and Beijing.
Into the Storm
The reason we see so much low-level violence and threat of violence is because there is a storm of violent rhetoric that actors can choose from to justify their actions. Just like the last time we saw large-scale, low-intensity political violence in the United States (the 60s and 70s), there isn’t just one issue that drives extremism; it’s everything. And unless we work to not only tamp down rhetoric but fight the conditions that breed the hate and accelerationist discontent, we’re in for a very rough few years. Now that the far-left is turning back to violence, the cycle of violence will be even harder to break. Our best hope in the abstract is to ensure the more mainstream of us don’t buy into the violence. Normally I try to have concrete policy advice to give, but this is more like a weather report for an impending hurricane: here’s what’s coming, take shelter and hope it passes.
The Meaning of American Democracy in 2024
I’d like to conclude with a message to those who may be on the verge of radicalization: America doesn’t need you to salute the flag or burn it, it doesn’t call you a citizen by your party affiliation, by whether you’ve worn the uniform or not. You’re not more or less of an American by how many generations your family has been here, whether you’ve read your Marx or Rand, by the religious emblems you wear or what social class you were raised in. You’re an American by ideal, not blood and soil. Democracy, American democracy, only demands that you uphold our democratic principles and understand that democracy will always be a work in progress, not a project to quit when the going gets tough. It needs you to refrain from holding a gun to your neighbor’s head when they voice disagreement, look a different way than you, or go to the ballot box. You don’t get to burn stuff down just because TikTok or Facebook told you some bullshit. We don’t have to have our own “years of lead” but it requires those with the loudest voices not to buy or sell in violent rhetoric, it requires buying back into democracy over destruction, and it requires a concerted effort to fight foreign influence campaigns even when it may benefit your personal politics. You want change this election? Grab some yard signs and go door knocking. The meaning of American democracy, what has kept us going, growing, and improving even when we’re far less than perfect, for the last 240+ years, is that when you want to make a real difference you punch a ballot, not the person next to you.
If you enjoyed this article, check out my novel, EX SUPRA. It’s the story of the war after next. Recently nominated for a Prometheus Award for best science fiction novel, it’s the story about the war after the next war. From the first combat jump on Mars to the climate change-ravaged jungles of Southeast Asia, EX SUPRA blends the bleeding edge of technology and the bloody reality of combat. In EX SUPRA, the super soldiers are only as strong as their own wills, reality is malleable, and hope only arrives with hellfire. Follow John Petrov, a refugee turned CIA paramilitary officer, Captain Jennifer Shaw, a Green Beret consumed by bloodlust, and many more, as they face off against Chinese warbots, Russian assassins, and their own demons in the war for the future of humanity.
Also! Breaking Beijing is expanding! We are now doing an open call for submissions for article on US-China policy, mil-ops, technology, and more! You can read all about it here if you’re interested in being published.