Earlier this week New México police arrested a failed Republican congressional candidate and charged him with hiring some men to shoot up the homes of Democratic opponents. Solomon Peña allegedly was dissatisfied with the results of his race last year and decided to seek revenge in the worst possible way: through violence. Like his idol, former President Donald Trump, Peña is an election denier and claimed fraud in his own run for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. He lost to his Democratic opponent by more than 3,600 votes.
In the U.S. many elected officials – mostly Democrat and liberal – have been the targets of political violence over the past 5 or 6 years; which (not surprisingly) coincides with the rise of Trump. The animosity reached a feverish crescendo on January 6, 2021, when a mob of Trump loyalists stormed the U.S. Capitol Building in a failed attempt to undermine the 2020 presidential election, as well as democracy itself. I’m still angry at the sight of hundreds storming into the building and even angrier at those who continue to support Trump and dismiss the severity of that day. Like most Americans, the rampage reminded me of images of developing countries in the throes of political chaos. While various groups in the U.S. have threatened to inflict such carnage over previous decades, no one really thought it would happen.
We have Donald Trump to thank for that.
Threatening election officials and taking out opponents with bullets is what used to happen in places like Colombia and the Philippines. Even as recently as 1995, Israel experienced political violence when Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. The act stunned the international community and roiled the only truly democratic state in the Middle East.
Americans have always had a love-hate relationship with their elected officials, whether or not they actually voted for them, or even voted at all. But I’ve always believed the Watergate fiasco was a major turning point in our nation’s disillusionment with politicians overall. That a sitting president would seek to gain an advantage over his adversaries by concocting a burglary scheme shocked most people. They always sort of knew politicians weren’t necessarily the most moral of individuals, but an actual break-in?
A greater sense of partisanship began to take hold in the ensuing decade and became more pronounced in the 1990s, as Republicans did everything they could – and failed – to undermine Bill Clinton’s agenda. The scandalous (and genuinely corrupt) 2000 presidential election widened the chasm of discontent. The GOP’s blatant disrespect for President Barack Obama was even more egregious and appalling – but not really unexpected from conservatives, as far as I was concerned.
Then came Donald Trump, and the haters suddenly had a license to lash out with unabashed vigor. All the social upheavals of the 1960s were the result of tensions that had been brewing for decades; people had grown tired of just waiting for change and hoping for the best. In a similar, yet twisted manner, the right-wing extremism that exploded under Trump also had been fomenting in the souls of angry (mostly White male) conservatives for years; that is, since…well, since the 1960s. Ronald Reagan once said he wanted to return America to the time before the 60s screwed up everything. As a relic of his past, he naturally didn’t understand we can’t go backwards in time. That’s science fiction. But that’s why I call most conservatives preservatives – they want to preserve the old ways of life; ways that were good for them, of course, but not everyone else.
Trump revised that futile dream with his “Make America Great Again” mantra; claiming he wanted to “take America back”. Back to where, those of us with more than half a brain asked, and how far? Back to the Civil War? Back to the Gilded Age?
Peña is just one cog in the wheel of America’s political vitriol. Think of this for a few moments. Acting like a drug cartel leader, Peña (who already had a felony criminal record) hired some thugs to fire gun shots into the homes of people he thought had snatched victory from him. At least one of those bullets ended up in a child’s bedroom. Just as with drug cartels, Peña and his henchmen cared nothing about their intended victims and any collateral damage – i.e., innocent bystanders. Drug lords only care about their profits; everyone and everything else be damned. Peña only cared about exacting personal revenge over what he perceived to be a corrupt system. We’re not supposed to do that in civilized societies.
But that is Trump’s legacy. That is what he’s done to the overall concept of democracy.