News4 I-Team

‘Denial is not our friend': Researchers say Americans need to ‘wake up' in time to prevent political violence

One third of Americans surveyed believe violence is justified to achieve political goals

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As the nation enters the first presidential election season since the insurrection of Jan. 6, 2021, new research shows an alarming number of Americans support violence to achieve political goals.

Researchers who surveyed more than 8,600 Americans about their support for and willingness to commit political violence shared their findings recently with the News4 I-Team.

A third of those surveyed told researchers violence would usually or always be justified to uphold at least one of 17 situations researchers asked about.

The most popular, 18.7% strongly or very strongly agreed that “if elected leaders won't protect American democracy, the people must do it themselves, even if it requires taking violent actions.”

Nearly 8.5% of people in the survey agreed strongly or very strongly with the idea of using violence “to stop an election from being stolen,” and 12.1% said political violence is justified “to preserve an American way of life I believe in.”

In another question, 19% strongly or very strongly agreed that “having a strong leader for America is more important than having a democracy."

“[They] think it's very important for the United States to have a leader who reflects their views and who are willing to use violence to get there,” Dr. Garen Wintemute recently told the I-Team.

“The thing that really concerns me is the possibility that all of us in the middle are not going to wake up in time to keep that from happening.”

Wintemute is an emergency room physician who started the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California, Davis and authored the survey. He told the I-Team his work in the ER led him to follow gun violence trends and a growing anti-government movement. “And then Jan. 6 happened,” Wintemute explained.


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“Everybody wanted to move on to other things and kind of put political violence behind us, but the gun purchasing didn't slacken,” he said. “I started digging into the literature on political violence and talking to the experts and realized people may be arming up. We may be getting ready for civil war or something like that. We started a program of survey research to find out if the answers to those questions were ‘yes.’”

When his team asked those thousands of Americans if they thought civil war was coming, 50.1% somewhat, strongly or very strongly agreed in the next few years, there will be civil war in the United States.

'The truth doesn't matter ... The storytelling matters.'

Jason Van Tatenhove, the former media director for the anti-government group the Oath Keepers, shares the concern. He left the group before the Jan. 6insurrection but told Congress during hearings on it, “I think we need to quit mincing words and just talk about truths. What it was going to be was an armed revolution."   

Jason Van Tatenhove (standing right), an ally of Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes, is sworn in to testify as the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol holds a hearing at the Capitol in Washington July 12, 2022. (Shawn Thew/Pool via AP)

Van Tatenhove is the author of a new book, “The Perils of Extremism” and writes for The Colorado Blade, an online news outlet. In his book, Van Tatenhove acknowledges the error in underestimating the movement he was once a part of. He writes Oath Keepers founder “Stewart [Rhodes] had always sprinkled the coming civil war into the messaging, but I had always made the mistake of dismissing such rhetoric. That was a mistake I will no longer make."

“We're in a country that's spiraling right now, and we've got to figure out some ways to reengage," Van Tatenhove told the I-Team in his Colorado hometown.

As someone who spent years crafting the Oath Keepers message, the I-Team took particular note when he said, “The truth doesn't matter in any of this. The storytelling matters. That's what matters. That's what people consume. That's what they get worked up about.”

“[Is it] also why they leave their house with a loaded weapon?” the I-Team asked.

“Yes,” Van Tatenhove replied.

He explained much of the anti-government movement fed on people’s anxiety over change in the country and then filled the gap with a notion that the work was for a greater good.

Supporters of anti-government movement show higher support for political violence, survey finds

Rachel Carroll Rivas, a 20-year researcher of the anti-government movement for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said on Jan. 6, “None of it surprised me.”

“The anti-government movement for decades used the concept that there would need to be a moment that people would have to take up arms against their own government for patriotic reasons in their minds,” she said. “So, yes, these conversations are very real, and they happen often."

"I saw that everything that happened on Jan. 6 felt like exactly what they had been saying they were going to do when the time came. For all of those years," she said.

And still happening — even since Jan. 6 — with the thousands of arrests and trials.

Carroll Rivas said while those cases might have cut out leadership from some groups like the Oath Keepers, a group that drew membership from elected leaders and some civic-minded volunteers, the arrests and federal cases empowered other groups like the Proud Boys or Boogaloo Boys, whose very existence, she says, is predicated on being ready to resist the government.

In Wintemute’s research, supporters of those groups, at least 70%, showed higher levels of support for political violence. According to his results, 41.5% of strong supporters of the Boogaloo movement were very or completely willing to kill a person to advance a political objective.

“Policymakers need to understand that there are groups out there interested in overthrowing the United States. And what our survey suggests is, apart from the groups, the ones who have names that we studied, there are plenty of people just out in the population who share that interest," Wintemute said.       

Researchers however did not stop at named groups, but studied differences between non-gun owners, those who owned guns and subsets of gun owners. Overall, the survey showed support for political violence between gun owners and the general population was not much different, but support grew among those who said they were recent firearm purchasers and grew even more among those who admit they always carry a firearm outside their home.

According to the survey, 5% of non-gun owners and 6.6% of gun owners said they are "somewhat willing” or “very willing" to kill someone to advance a political objective.

That number jumped to 13.3% for respondents who say they almost always carry a weapon outside the home.

That’s hundreds of people in the survey results, but Wintemute says it equates to millions of Americans in the overall population.

“What the data tell us is there are, on any given day, thousands of armed people walking around in the United States who think that political violence is justified,” Wintemute said.

When his team drilled down even further, it found 62.5% of people who always carry weapons and 29.9% of people who recently purchased a firearm said it was very or extremely likely they would be armed when political violence is justified.

“Denial is not our friend here. We need to believe these data and act on them,” Wintemute said.

“I got sucked in and I got radicalized to a certain extent,” Van Tatenhove told the I-Team as he looked back on his time with the Oath Keepers. “I was lucky in that I was shaken awake and didn't recognize myself anymore. And I was like, ‘What am I doing?’"

As for solutions, Van Tatenhove offered this warning: “I think our leadership needs to take a much harder stand and say this is not acceptable. This is not who we are as Americans. We've got to reject the notion of political violence."

Reported by Ted Oberg, produced by Rick Yarborough, and shot and edited by Steve Jones.

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