This piece is part of a series titled "Nonstate armed actors and illicit economies in 2023" from Brookings's Initiative on Nonstate Armed Actors.
Despite fears that the 2022 U.S. midterm elections would see a reprise of January 6-like political violence, the elections occurred with no mobs storming state capitals or other attacks. Improved law enforcement deserves much of the credit: January 6 was a shock, and both federal and state officials were far more vigilant this time around. In addition, no national figure tried to whip up mobs, as President Donald Trump did in 2020. Violence could return in 2024, especially if Trump or another figure willing to incite violence is on the ballot, but law enforcement, if it remains vigilant, will be better prepared to reduce the scope and scale of any threat.
The High 2021 Threat Environment
Since a pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, the prospect of further political violence has loomed over America. Before the 2022 election, government agencies like the Department of Homeland Security and the National Counterterrorism Center warned of the risk of election-related violence. Polls found that one in 10 Americans believed violence was justified right now, and that figure rose to one in five of Republican-voting men. Threats against members of Congress skyrocketed, and even local school board races became far more threatening. The brutal attack on Paul Pelosi, husband of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, at his San Francisco home seemed to confirm many people’s fears.
Making all this worse, hundreds of election deniers were on the ballot, creating worries that losers at the polls would incite violence rather than accept political defeat. In addition, the contests for Senate, governor, and other races were close, often coming down to small numbers of votes in Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, and other states.
Yet November 8 came and went, and the United States did not see significant election-related violence despite the many warnings and an ominous environment. It’s always hard to understand why something didn’t happen, but this vital question is worth exploring, given the dire predictions and continuing concerns about future violence.
Why Low Election Violence in 2022?
To begin with, it is important to understand what contributed to the January 6 violence that shocked many Americans. Trump, along with several lieutenants and leading supporters in the media, pushed the idea that he was the rightful winner of the 2020 election. Many other Republican leaders stayed silent rather than openly stand against a president popular among the Republican electorate. In the leadup to January 6, election deniers organized relatively freely, both at face-to-face gatherings and online, where they often used Facebook to push misinformation and prepare for violence. Although some of the violence was spontaneous and involved bystanders who gathered on the mall simply to show support for Trump, it is now clear that organized groups like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers prepared for and planned violence before January. Despite many indicators that violence was brewing, law enforcement and intelligence agencies did not focus on the problem, leading them to be surprised when the storm broke.
Some, but not all, of these contributing factors have changed for the better. Starting at the top, Trump himself was not on the ballot this last midterm election. As a result, he did not encourage his cultish followers to march on the Capitol or otherwise whip up their fears and anger as he did before the January 6 insurrection. He did champion several Republican candidates who lost races where Republicans had seemed well-placed to win, such as Arizona, Georgia, and Pennsylvania, among others, but rather than serve as inspiration for violence this actually discredited the former president. Even before the election, leading Republicans like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell cited “candidate quality” as a reason why Republicans might not win back the Senate. When this concern proved valid, he and other Republicans lambasted Trump for the loss, joined by Fox News and other conservative media outlets.
Some candidates did raise doubts about the validity of elections, notably Republican candidate for governor of Arizona, Kari Lake, who claimed she lost due to voter suppression, an allegation that appears to have little evidence behind it. It appears that without Trump’s involvement, individual races did not capture the national imagination or inspire the same level of passion among voters: his charisma and national reach was unique.
Social media companies also took several positive steps, though their efforts remained incomplete and the impact of these steps is not clear. Trump, of course, was banned from Twitter and Facebook, reducing his reach. Companies like Facebook sought to combat the incitement of violence and voting-related misinformation. Studies of major companies, however, showed that false information remained widespread on their platforms.
Aggressive law enforcement is perhaps the biggest change from the 2020 election. Whereas in 2020 many plotters believed they could count on a degree of government complicity, that sense of security is gone. As the official warnings before the election suggest, government agencies are aware of the risk and trying to head off problems before they manifest. More concretely, the U.S. government charged almost 1,000 people with crimes related to January 6 so far, in the largest investigation in the FBI’s history. Organized groups like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers were hit hard, with leaders convicted of felonies and the groups themselves under tremendous scrutiny.
Prospects for 2024
Election violence, of course, could return in 2024. Part of this depends on whether Trump is on the ballot and how much support he has from others within the conservative political and media ecosystem to again whip up violence. The former president has shown he will push conspiracy theories and encourage violence should he lose, and there is no reason to expect that to change. For now Trump’s star appears to be falling, but he has proven resilient, and he has many die-hard supporters. In addition, new Twitter owner Elon Musk has welcomed the former president back to Twitter, and in general social media remains awash in dangerous conspiracies.
But there is good news as well. Many GOP leaders seem to recognize that election denialism and support for violence is a losing strategy. Perhaps more important, Trump is not president, and the FBI and other federal law enforcement will be aggressive in trying to stop election-related violence. Indeed, even without direction from political officials, January 6 was a wakeup call, and both federal and state government officials are far less likely to be caught by surprise in future elections.
None of this suggests violence is impossible, or even highly unlikely. Many politicians and ordinary Americans alike seem too willing to consider violence, should elections not go their way. As long as law enforcement remains vigilant, however, it will be more difficult for politicians to incite violent mobs and for dangerous groups to organize: important factors in reducing the scope and scale of the danger, even if it remains a strong concern.
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