Election Violence Could Arrive Long Before November
What happens when you combine a resurgent BLM movement, deadly far-right counter-protesters, and a desperate president fanning the flames? We’re about to find out.
Matthew Egler appeared unwell. In the hours leading up to July 24, he was emailing Arizona officials, claiming to have an intimate relationship with Ivanka Trump, and stating that he might be the next Republican vice president.
Then, shortly after midnight, he allegedly drove to the Arizona Democratic Party headquarters in Phoenix, smashed a glass door, and lit a fire that completely destroyed the party’s field office in what might be one of the most hotly contested counties in the upcoming presidential election. In social media posts reviewed by The Arizona Republic, Egler issued Trumpian talking points about Democrats “fixing” the election for Joe Biden. He appeared to confess to the fire as a political message. “I BOMBED THIS BUILDING” he wrote. “LISTEN TO WHAT IM SAYING.”
As America hurtles toward one of the most contentious elections in its history, law-enforcement officials and security experts are warning of increased potential for violent attacks targeting the vote. Recent election cycles have been marked by unrest, but 2020’s chaotic combination of pandemic and protests has led everyone from the feds to activist groups to sound the alarm.
Factor in an increasingly mobilized far right, a president who routinely accuses Democrats of fraudulent schemes, and preemptive right-wing chatter about stopping that imagined fraud, and the resulting atmosphere, some extremism-watchers warn, is an explosive one.
Mike German, a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice and former FBI special agent focusing on terrorism, made no predictions about election violence, but noted that this election comes amid a flare-up of violent tensions, especially on the far right.
“Here we have not just the very contentious election,” German told The Daily Beast, “but an election in the midst of considerable amount of far-right violence directed at Black Lives Matter protests, and at law enforcement, despite the seemingly friendly relationship these [far-right] groups seem to have cultivated with law enforcement.”
Egler, who is accused of arson and has pleaded not guilty, does not appear to be a member of any organized extremist group. In fact, rather than a longtime Donald Trump supporter, he was a former attempted volunteer for the Democratic Party in Maricopa County, Arizona. Party officials declined his help, with one seeking a protective order against him in early 2017; an attorney for Egler did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Instead, his social media suggests a strange trajectory into violent themes, election-related conspiracy theories, and confused ramblings, often implying that he thought Ivanka Trump was in a relationship with him (“she talks to me, sends me hearts,” he wrote in one tweet). Suffice it to say there is plenty of precedent for Trump supporters turning to violence.
His alleged attack on the office forced the Maricopa County Democrats headlong into an issue that’s “always on the back of our minds,” communications director Edder Diaz-Martinez said.
“The entire building was gone,” Diaz-Martinez told The Daily Beast. “That's where people, mostly volunteers, congregated to do the organizing and the strategizing and to hold our meetings... I think it’s been a wake-up call, certainly.”
The view isn’t universal. The party’s chair in another traditionally bellwether county said he wasn’t worried about election-related violence. “I don’t see anything different from any other year,” Ed Bruley, chairman of Michigan’s Macomb County Democrats, told The Daily Beast.
Still, a pair of August reports by the FBI and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) suggest that terror-watchers are keeping a close eye on voting sites.
In a recent bulletin to law enforcement, reviewed by Yahoo News last week, the FBI warned that extremists “across the ideological spectrum likely will continue to plot against government and election-related targets to express their diverse grievances involving government policies and actions.”
The bulletin warned that it had observed a pattern of election-related violence this cycle, including “threatening 2020 political candidates or events, including threats against current candidates for President, presidential conventions, and counter protestors at campaign rallies, as well as individuals committing arson or sending threatening packages targeting political party offices.”
Although the bulletin omits ideologies from its descriptions, one incident appears to describe a previously unreported plot by members of a far-right militia who discussed plans to storm their state capitol and kill everyone inside. “Members stated the need to act prior to a possible Democratic presidential administration, due to the belief that stricter firearms regulations would be enacted quickly thereafter,” the bulletin reads. The document reportedly goes on to describe a plot by an extremist in Ohio to set off a bomb that would spark a race war if Trump did not win re-election. (The FBI declined to comment on the memo, telling The Daily Beast that it routinely shares intelligence with law enforcement.)
A DHS report from mid-August on “physical threats to the 2020 election season,” first reported by the extremism news site Left Coast Right Watch, also warned of potential unrest. The memo, which highlighted campaign gathering, polling places, and voter registration sites as the most likely targets, noted that COVID-19 and racial justice protests “have likely exacerbated the typical election-season threat environment.”
The report cited two arsons or attempted arsons on Republican party offices in Wyoming and North Carolina, in 2018 and 2016, respectively, as well as a self-proclaimed anti-Trump man who allegedly drove a van into a tent where Republican Party volunteers had been registering voters in February.
DHS terror assessments might be taken with a grain of salt, a department whistleblower alleged last week. In a complaint, a former high-level DHS employee alleged that department leadership this year repeatedly ordered him to downplay the threat posed by white supremacists and inflate the threat posed by the left, namely the anti-fascist movement. Recent reports from independent groups like the Center for Strategic and International Studies, as well as a DHS draft of a document on potential terror attacks, cite white supremacists as the country’s greatest terror threat.
The FBI has also specifically labeled far-right conspiracy theories like QAnon as a terror threat. And this election is the first in which the “Boogaloo” movement, a coalition of far-right and libertarian personalities that has been implicated in multiple violent attempted plots, has been in play.
Trump’s rhetoric around the election could serve to aggravate far-right violence, which has been significantly more deadly than activity corresponding with the left. In recent months, Trump has repeatedly attempted to discredit mail-in voting—which Democrats encourage as a COVID-19 safety measure—as a vehicle for fraud, and has claimed that people might catch COVID-19 from touching ballot dropboxes, or that the boxes might be tampered with.
Increasingly, Trump has also claimed that anti-fascists are going to burn down his supporters’ neighborhoods. “ANTIFA THUGS WILL RUIN SUBURBS,” a recent Trump campaign text read. Another Trump text, days later, read “ANTIFA ALERT. They’ll attack your homes if Joe’s elected.”
Although “antifa” is not a single, unified entity, one organized anti-fascist group in a swing state said they were worried about election-related violence, particularly after Trump’s remarks.
“We’re concerned,” a spokesperson for Atlanta Antifascists, an activist group in that city, told The Daily Beast, noting increasingly mobilized QAnon and militia movements, and attacks on Black Lives Matter events.
Trump and supporters “paint a picture of the country being on the verge of some sort of Bolshevik takeover, somehow with Biden at its head,” the group said. “We don’t know when or if violence will take place, but of course believers are being primed for it. It will be an interesting next few months.”
German said Trump’s language “certainly raises the potential for far-right violence. And as we have seen, once police don’t respond to that far-right violence, it’s not surprising to see communities rely on self-help measures.” Recent left-right clashes around protests have led to at least four deaths, two at the hands of a right-wing militia member, one at the hands of an anti-fascist, as well as the death of that same anti-fascist at the hands of law enforcement. (The vigilante accused of killing two, 17-year-old Illinois resident Kyle Rittenhouse, was able to walk past police unimpeded after the shooting in Kenosha, Wisconsin.)
“As that cycle of violence continues, certainly the rhetoric isn’t helping, especially when it is giving support to far-right militancy,” German said. Trump has recently dismissed concerns about supporters who fired paintballs at the left in Portland, and defended the actions of Rittenhouse.
Some of that cycle is still in its planning stages, with left- and right-wing groups attempting to forecast the other side’s plans and respond accordingly. Earlier this year, a bipartisan group called the Transition Integrity Project offered predictions on possible street-level outcomes, should the election not immediately result in a clear winner. One possible situation involved Trump refusing to concede defeat, leading to violent unrest. The bipartisan group forecasted that some 4 million Biden supporters might protest in his defense, but that the Trump campaign was more likely to be “ruthless” and take measures like tapping “surrogates to embed operatives inside protests to encourage violent action” or deploying unorthodox law enforcement to protests.
Based on those predictions, a left-leaning coalition called Fight Back Table recently held discussions about how to protest, should Trump contest the election results. Those discussions, first reported by The Daily Beast, led to conservative media headlines about imminent lefty protests.
In another game of dangerous left-right telephone, the Canadian media company Adbusters launched a campaign calling for a 50-day “siege” of the White House, which was really a call to protest in a park across from the building. Nevertheless, right-wing groups portrayed the protest call as an urgent threat to violence, and upped the ante on social media, with prominent figures calling to further militarize the area around the White House and to “shut down all movement into & out of DC.”
Many of those cascading concerns stem from Trump’s claims and attendant fears on the right that Democrats will cheat at the polls, and fears on the left that Trump will attempt to overturn a Biden victory.
“He’s also alleging fraud in the election, which is one more motive for these groups to resort to violence,” German said of the president.
At least one far-right operation already claims to be organizing in-person actions against elections officials in the event of perceived fraud, Right Wing Watch reported last week. Republican operative Ali Alexander, who has previously associated with alt-right personalities and advised a PAC that received a $60,000 donation from GOP mega-donor Robert Mercer, announced an initiative to “stop the steal” of the election, presumably by Democrats.
Despite the Trump talking point being completely unfounded, Alexander claimed to be organizing a physical operation targeting “bad” election officials.
“In the coming days, we will launch an effort concentrating on the swing states, and we will map out where the votes are being counted and the secretary of states,” Alexander said in a broadcast. “We will map all of this out for everyone publicly and we will collect cell phone numbers so that way if you are within 100 mile radius of a bad secretary of state or someone who’s counting votes after the deadline or if there’s a federal court hearing, we will alert you of where to go.”
Alexander, who has not been accused of violence, told The Daily Beast that the action was “legal, peaceful civic engagement” that he had conducted in 2018 in Florida “without incident.”
Diaz-Martinez, the Maricopa County Democrats official, said the attack on his organization’s offices were a reminder to have their own plan in place.
“Somebody coming in in the middle of the night and throwing some sort of explosive into your building is something you can't mitigate,” he said. “But what you can mitigate is something like having a plan in place for potential incidents that may occur after or before the election.”
His organization is encouraging mail-in and early voting (which is easier in Arizona, which has extended early voting), as well as encouraging people to become poll monitors. The latter has been challenging during the COVID era, he noted, but he said younger volunteers have risen to the task.
“We’re working closely with authorities,” he said, adding that the fire was a call to action. “The temperature in the air is rife with contentiousness because people are very passionate on both sides.”
German, for his part, said law enforcement needs to understand that the far right is a threat to them, too, and that the presence of police might not always be welcome at polling sites, even—or especially—in a charged environment.
“The ability to have a free and fair election often means that law enforcement needs to stay away from the polling places as well,” he said. “Having police monitoring polling sites, particularly where there’s a history of racism or discrimination in that police department, is problematic and creates a chilling effect.”