The arrest of a New Mexico Republican election denier for gun attacks on the homes of Democratic opponents has brought new attention to the scourge of political violence by extremists, more than two years after the January 6 Capitol attack.
Authorities say Solomon Pena, an ex-felon who lost his challenge for a seat in the state legislature in November, personally took part in shootings at the homes of at least four Democratic lawmakers, or conspired with and paid others to undertake them. He was scheduled to make a first court appearance Wednesday.
Pena, a Donald Trump loyalist who insisted without evidence that his election was rigged, was the “mastermind” of an apparent politically motivated criminal conspiracy, Albuquerque police chief Harold Medina said.
Doorbell video showed Pena earlier showing up uninvited at houses where he believed the Democrats lived to complain about his defeat.
“This was about a rightwing radical, an election denier and someone who did the worst imaginable thing you can do when you have a political disagreement, which is turn that to violence,” Albuquerque’s mayor, Tim Keller, a Democrat, told reporters.
“We don’t always agree with our elected officials, but that should never, ever lead to violence.”
Analysts say the episode is reflective of an increased prevalence of violence by rightwing extremists and white supremacists, including such hate groups as the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys, seeking to settle political scores since Trump won the White House in 2016.
The most egregious example was when a mob of the former president’s supporters invaded the Capitol on 6 January 2021 seeking to halt the certification by Congress of Joe Biden’s election win. Five people lost their lives.
Other emboldened fanatics have plotted to kidnap Michigan’s governor, Gretchen Whitmer, assaulted the husband of Democratic then speaker Nancy Pelosi with a hammer, and are believed to be behind recent attacks on the power grid in North Carolina, the Pacific north-west and elsewhere.
Neither is violence the sole preserve of the rightwing. A California man faces trial for the attempted murder of conservative supreme court justice Brett Kavanaugh.
“What we’ve seen is this normalization of a certain level of violence in America that is going to keep allowing this sort of danger to happen until the Republican party starts getting rid of this sort of violent rhetoric and nihilism,” said Rachel Kleinfeld, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and an expert in political violence who testified to the House January 6 committee last year.
“The Democratic party obviously doesn’t have quite as bad a problem, but Brett Kavanaugh and so on shows that it does.”
Kleinfeld said Trump’s refusal to accept his election defeat, and inciting of the 6 January insurrection, had enhanced the acceptability of political violence. An alarming study last year found that one in five US adults, about 50 million people, believed it was justified at least in some circumstances.
“If you don’t have punishments, if you don’t have accountability for participating in a treasonous act, then some people will aggrandize it, and that’s what we’re seeing,” she said.
“A lot of Republicans want to claim that violence is in our country’s history as an independence movement, violence against tyranny. The problem is we are now a democracy. The government is us. It is the people that we elect to come from our own communities, and tyranny against a government of our own people is simply violence.”
Kleinfeld said Republicans appeared unable or unwilling to find a base that “will vote without being riled up by violence”, and that the growth and spread of online extremism, amplified by rightwing personalities on the internet and television, were becoming a deterrent to those who might want to serve their communities.
“New Mexico state legislators had their homes shot at, one with a 10-year-old daughter asleep in a bedroom that three bullets went through. It’s an unpaid position,” she said.
“I don’t know who would run for that office in normal times. But certainly the likelihood of somebody running for office when they face gunshots to their house, it goes down.
“We’re seeing everyone from school board to mayors to [those in] higher elected office facing these kinds of threats and intimidation. Threats against members of Congress are up tenfold in the last five years. It’s not counted, but we are not going to be able to get quality representation. Add this to the other burdens that our representatives carry, and without quality representation you get the democracy you deserve.”
Many analysts believe Republicans’ tepid performance in the November midterms was a rejection of the hardline extremism and election denial that had largely guided its direction since Trump left office. The question is whether the Republican party sees it the same way.
Kleinfeld said: “The public recognizes where we are now. Unfortunately, there’s not enough understanding from the leadership and the media personalities who are playing with fire in order to help their ratings and help their election prospects a little bit. It’s really a dereliction of duty.”