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On “Intelligence Matters” this week, host Michael Morell talks with University of Chicago political science professor and director of the Chicago Project on Security and Threats Robert “Bob” Pape about his ongoing research on political violence in America and its implications as the midterms approach.
His new research finds that 5% of American adults, or around 13 million people, agree that the use of force is justified to restore Donald Trump to the presidency. Pape discusses the ways in which political violence has turned mainstream and is being exacerbated by political leaders.
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“INTELLIGENCE MATTERS” WITH BOB PAPE
PRODUCER: PAULINA SMOLINSKI
MICHAEL MORELL: Bob, welcome back to Intelligence Matters. It’s great to have you again.
BOB PAPE: Thank you, Michael. Always glad to be here.
MICHAEL MORELL: We want to get an update on your research on attitudes toward political violence in the United States, particularly as we approach the midterms. And quite frankly not far behind those will be the campaign for the 2024 presidential election. Perfect time to get an update on what CPOST is doing in this realm. So what I really want to do is I want to start with your research findings and then transition to the implications of those findings, if that makes sense to you. I think of your research as, maybe you don’t think of it this way, but I think of your research as being a triad, your work on those individuals arrested for their actions on January 6th at the U.S. Capitol is one.The surveys that you’ve done is number two. And then the focus groups you’ve done is number three. I want to ask about each of those. Let’s start with those arrested at the Capitol. How many cases are now in your database? Have there been any changes in your findings with regard to those individuals? And can you review those findings with us?
BOB PAPE: Absolutely, Michael. I think that’s a perfect way to think about it, that triad. We have 862 individuals in our database who have been charged with various offenses related to breaking into the Capitol. That’s up to date as of August. We update them about every six weeks or so. So we’ll do another round of updates soon. But the cases have slowed down, of course, so the changes are not very great on a month by month basis. The bottom lines have not changed. The bottom lines are that we face not just a political threat to our democracy, but a violent political threat to our democracy. This is coming mainly not from a foreign actor. I’m not saying that Russia has not been involved with trying to interfere with our elections, but this is not the main issue. It’s also not coming mainly from militia groups like the Proud Boys or Oath Keepers, although we see those in the news all the time. Those groups number at most, over the last ten years, something like 40,000 people. Rather this is coming from millions of Americans in the mainstream who believe that their political goals are so important that they take precedence over the outcome in our elections.
This is a new problem. It has roots in, of course, in our politics are racial issues going back decades. So you could say that this is an old book, but with a very new chapter. We’re used to thinking of extremism coming from the fringe. We’re used to thinking of extremism as coming from fringe social media. We’re used to thinking of extremism as coming from people with very little to lose. This is the opposite in this case. What we are seeing is extremism has moved into the mainstream. The individuals who broke into the Capitol on January six, only 14% of them are members of violent extremist groups like the Oath Keepers or the Proud Boys, which means 90% are not. Over half of those who broke in are CEOs. They’re business owners. They’re from white collar occupations like doctors, lawyers, architects and accountants. And yes, we know the difference between being self-employed and the business owner or CEO of an operation with more than 5 to 10 employees. We are using those terms the way the Department of Labor uses those terms. You can go to our website, CPOST The Chicago Project on Security and Threats. There is a publicly available online database. If you just go to our website, you will find it through all the different reports we have.
But the fact of the matter is, what you see when you look at those individuals is that they are middle class. They are 92% white, 86% male, and they are coming from the counties in the United States that Biden mostly won, not that Trump mostly won. Now, these are Trump supporters, for sure. They broke into the Capitol to stop the transition of power from one presidency to another, essentially to keep Trump in office. But they are coming not from the most rural, the reddest districts in America. They are coming overwhelmingly from the most diverse urban districts in America. San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, not Southern Illinois. New York City, not Upstate New York. Philadelphia, not the middle of Central Pennsylvania. They’re coming from Houston. They’re coming from Dallas. They are coming from Democratic strongholds, mostly, over half, from Democratic strongholds that Biden comfortably wins and Democrats comfortably win. But they’re a minority in these situations. And so they are also seeing, they are on the front lines of racial change and demographic change. So the number one characteristic of these counties, aside that produced the insurrectionists who broke into the Capitol, is they are the counties losing the most white population in the United States.
Now, so far, our listeners here will have heard most of that before. A little bit of update with the new numbers. But what’s really new since I’ve been on before is that we’ve had some data points in the real world which confirm what I’m saying. So I just said that a big risk factor is for this issue of the great replacement, motivating political violence is living in a county losing the most white population. That’s a fairly clear statistic that many of your listeners would be able to track. The Buffalo shooter is a data point in this regard. So in May, as your listeners will know, a white individual who deeply believed in the great replacement and wanted to stop the replacement of whites by minorities, blacks and other minorities. He left his home county in Broome County, New York, drove 3 hours to Buffalo, New York, and killed ten African-Americans as they were standing in line to buy their groceries. What’s significant about this is, number one, we know he was a believer in the great replacement, this idea I’ve been talking about because he posted this online, you can’t miss it. But number two, Broome County. Broome County is one of the counties in the whole country losing the most white population since 2010. The actual numbers in the county are basically flat at about 200,000 to 2010 to 2020. What’s changed is they have lost the fantastic number of non-Hispanic whites who, of course, have been changed with demographic change, with minorities. So he is right on the front lines, so to speak, of seeing demographic change happening right in front of him and steeped in, of course, these political narratives that he’s hearing from politicians, that he’s hearing from very popular media figures about the consequences of the great replacement. And so you put those two things together and you have really quite a dangerous cocktail. And I’ve been saying this on your show now several times, but now we’re really seeing data points happening after the understanding that are confirming this understanding.
MICHAEL MORELL: Let’s move to that second piece of the triad, the surveys, the polling you’ve done. Let’s start by reminding us of the quality of those surveys. These are as good as one gets with surveys, right?
BOB PAPE: That’s exactly right, Michael. So these are not just surveys of lists of individuals. These are nationally representative surveys done to the highest degree of quality that we can possibly do. We do them with NORC at the University of Chicago, which is the most respected academic polling agency in the world. It’s of the same quality as Gallup, Ipsos, does plenty of surveys for the AP, Washington Post, New York Times, CBS, also the White House, the administration. The way these surveys are done is very important to understand.
When I say it’s a nationally representative survey, NORC starts with a panel of 40,000 individuals who are matched to dozens of demographic factors in the national population of adults, of 258 million adults. And this is done with statisticians. They’re basically a giant building with 600 people. And this is mostly what they are doing. And then they refresh that panel by replacing that panel every month or so with a new portion, so that it’s a constantly refreshing panel so that you have a panel of 40,000 that is as representative of the country as can possibly be. Now, from that 40,000, we then draw randomly thousands of people. The most recent survey that we did just three weeks ago, that was fielded September 9 to 11, 2022. We drew 3,000 was just about 3,100 actually randomly from this 40,000. So that allows us to extrapolate the findings from the 3000 that we randomly sampled to not just the panel of the 40,000, but to the large population of 258 million in the United States.
These are expensive panels and surveys to do, but we’ve been fortunate since I’ve been here, Michael, that the Pritzker Military Foundation and some others have come in to support this work at the Chicago Project on Security and Threats at the University of Chicago. And we are now able to do these every three months. So we are able to change. We can track change, and you’ll hear some important information about that. We’re able to expand and cover not just the right, but also the left. That’s very, very important. And we’re also able to probe more deeply into the impact of events such as, say, the raid on Mar-a-Lago. So we will be able to have a fuller, richer picture on a more regular basis over the next year. And that is thanks in part to shows like this, which have helped us to get the word out on the importance of these super high quality surveys. And so I’m glad to talk about the findings, but I just want to give you the baseline of the surveys.
MICHAEL MORELL: What are the latest findings from the surveys?
BOB PAPE: The latest findings from this survey, the nationally representative survey that we did just three weeks ago, that’s fielded September 9 to 11, 2022, are that 5% of American adults, that’s the equivalent of 13 million people, agree that the use of force is justified to restore Donald Trump to the presidency. This is a large number of people, 13 million people. There is a larger pool, more than double that size, who are actually ambivalent about whether the use of force is justified to restore Donald Trump to the presidency. And that number of ambivalent is also concerning. Any of your listeners who are working for politicians and I know because I’ve been briefing quite a few politicians. The politicians will immediately see the importance not just of the 13 million, but of the larger number who are ambivalent because that is how politicians think. They are trying to move ambivalent into their camp.
MICHAEL MORELL: What is the number of the ambivalent folks?
BOB PAPE: There are over 25 million. So just a significant number in the ambivalent. So it’s really quite concerning, Michael, that you have both the ambivalent and you have those who are in that red category of agree that the use of force is justified to restore Donald Trump to the presidency. Now, in this survey, we went a bit further because again, we have a little bit more support so we can do more. And we stress tested what people mean when we asked them about the use of force.
MICHAEL MORELL: What do they mean?
BOB PAPE: Yeah. They might be thinking, well, we’re just talking about yelling or protesting.
MICHAEL MORELL: Is it protesting or is it more than that?
BOB PAPE: Yeah. So what we did in the survey, and I’ll talk about this in the focus groups as well, what we did in the survey is we broke that 3000 into two sub samples. So we asked one subsample the question just as I phrased it, use of force justified to restore Trump to the presidency. We asked the second subsample that question with adding the words, even if some people are injured or killed. So that allows us to compare those two samples and see are they really different? That is, once you clarify for people that when we say use of force, it means people will be killed. Does that change their mind? Does that deter them? And stunningly, it’s 5% and 5%. That is, it’s the same number. Now what this means is that when we use the phrase the use of force, this is not just using the phrase of violence or contentiousness that we really are zeroing in on the use of force a la something like January six. And so this is extremely important to see that these 13 million here are fairly hardcore supporters of the use of force for Donald Trump.
MICHAEL MORELL: What did the survey say is motivating these people to take this position on the use of force?
BOB PAPE: Yes. So we see two factors, and we’ve seen this now in our surveys across the board. So this is actually our fifth nationally representative survey. And these two factors just continue to be the dominant factors. The biggest factor, number one, which over 60% of the 13 million agree with, is the idea of the great replacement. This is the idea that the Democratic Party is deliberately replacing the current white electorate with new, more obedient minority voters from the Third World. This is essentially a racial issue where the great replacement is about the fear that whites will become second class citizens and subordinate in the United States. The second big.
MICHAEL MORELL: Some of the same things, Bob, you hear from the people that were actually arrested at the Capitol on January 6th.
BOB PAPE: Oh, absolutely. So we have tracked the stated motives of those who have been arrested in our reports on our website. We’ve studied their remorse statements. So if people will go to our website, they’ll see a variety of reports about what we know about the motives of those who broke into the Capitol on our CPOST website at the University of Chicago. And yes, this is right in line with what we’re seeing. But those are, of course, more anecdotal. They’re not systematically collected.
The difference here is with the nationally representative surveys, we have far more reliable information and we can do things like statistically test not just is this the belief of the 13 million, but how does that compare to the other portion, the larger portion of the population that is not violently supporting Trump? And you can see that this is a statistically significant separator between the call it the peaceful part of the population and the violent support for Trump. And that’s something you can’t really do with just simply counting up statements by the insurrectionists, doesn’t mean that’s not helpful. But the surveys just allow for much greater confidence that this is actually a driving factor.
MICHAEL MORELL: The great replacement theory is one motivation that you see in these surveys. What’s the second?
BOB PAPE: The second motivation is the idea of the QAnon cults. This is held by just under half of the 13 million and is also a statistically significant separator of the 13 million violent supporters of Trump from the rest of society. This is the belief, as our wording and I’m giving you the wording in the survey, that a group of satanic worshiping pedophiles is running the U.S. government. Now, this, Michael, if I could, would be an excellent time to talk about and segway into our focus groups, the third leg of the triad.
MICHAEL MORELL: Because this is because this sounds weird, right?
BOB PAPE: Yeah, exactly. So this is where focus groups can really start to clarify. So no matter what you do on the surveys, you are limited by the single sentence nature. Or maybe you can give a paragraph, but you’re not actually talking to people who are filling out surveys. We know that. We understand that. And so it was very important to have gone further than the survey analysis to do what’s called ethnographic focus groups. And the way we’ve done this at CPOST is different than the usual town hall method your listeners will be watching on, say, CNN or read in the New York Times. The way pollsters do focus groups for political polling and for the newspapers is they get a group of people together and then they basically have them shout at each other. And then they see how many disagree, how many are on one side, and how many are on the other. Well, we know that from our survey. So what we did is a different type of method.
What we did is we focus grouped people after they filled out our survey. So we already know where they come in on use of force for Trump, great replacement, and Qanon cults. And then what we did is we bundled them together in like minded groups. So they’re not shouting at each other. They’re in a situation where once they get a little comfortable in the group, they discover within about 5 minutes that they’re with like minded people. So they just start talking. And the truth is, you can’t really stop that. They love the idea that they’re not being shouted down. And once that happens, this goes on for 90 minutes and then they don’t want to leave.
MICHAEL MORELL: What do they say in these focus groups?
BOB PAPE: Number one, it confirms that the use of force does mean something like January six, where people will be injured or killed. So that is number one. Number two, the great replacement is what we think it means, which is that there is a group of haves who are about to lose what they have to have nots, especially in a racial context, not just a political polarization context of Dems and Republicans. But number three, really helping to understand QAnon. Many of the people that toggle that box on the QAnon cult, once you get them in conversation, they’ll say, ‘well, it’s not exactly that. I think there is a satanic cult. I don’t really know these people, so I don’t know that. What I think is that there are especially Democratic political leaders willing to associate with known pedophiles for personal gain.’ And then almost to a person, they’ll talk about Jeffrey Epstein and they’ll talk about Bill Clinton and Prince Andrew and and Bill Gates and others getting on the Elite Express. I’m quoting from them. With Jeffrey Epstein in order to get personal benefits. But knowing full well that he’s been accused of all these awful things with underage girls. But doing it anyway because- and so what they’ll then say is that well these individual leaders are so committed to their own personal gain that they will harm people and hurt people to get themselves ahead. So they are, quote, as good as satanic worshiping pedophiles, even if not technically so.
So what you then see, Michael, from the focus groups is a little bit deeper understanding of the cocktail that’s leading not just to support for Trump, but violent support for Trump. What you have in the great replacement is this idea that people who have built their whole lives, a certain amount of stuff, a certain amount of things, certain amount of advantages. And their families have done this. Their families moved to the United States from overseas. So they are they recognize right away their immigrant background, but they see that this is all now vulnerable to be lost to who they see as undeserving people and they see that what’s the reason this could happen is because there are corrupt, immoral leaders who are doing that, willing to basically have them lose everything that they and their families have worked for in order to make some short term political gain.
It’s that idea that the corrupt leader is intentionally willing to do this is making for some really quite virulent anger, if you see what I mean. I think it’s a mistake to just keep thinking about, well, the folks who have the violent support for Trump, these are just a version of the deplorables or they’re the losers or they’re people we’re just going to dismiss here. Because, by the way, when we do that, we do two things. Number one, we don’t really understand what their anger is. And then number two, once we think about people as just simply deplorable and irrational, there’s really very little policy options here except use of force against them or arresting them. And that just makes the matter worse, because when they hear themselves being described as deplorable and irrational and so forth, they know that right away. They know that just means, well, what’s happening is the other side is just going to want to use force against us. And that makes them feel even more justified in their support for force, because then they start to see it as coming out of self-defense. So the focus groups really did help to deepen our understanding of that violence support for Trump.
MICHAEL MORELL: You mentioned in the survey that you did some interesting work on views about the appropriateness of violence on the far left as well. Can you talk about that?
BOB PAPE: One of the big things that we’ve been able to do with these more thicker, expanded, expanded surveys is that we’ve started to be able to now survey the possibility of violent sentiments on the left. Now, let me just take a moment and explain, though, why survey violence sentiments in the country? It’s important to see that this kind of community support for violence is like understanding wildfires. When we have wildfire season, we have combustible material, dry wood, that can be set off by lightning strikes. And the way we know it’s a more dangerous season is because we can measure the size of the dry wood, that is combustible material. And if it’s getting bigger or smaller, that’s how we know it’s more or less dangerous. Well, that’s the same with studying violence sentiments in the mainstream of the population. This allows us to get a measure of the dry, combustible material that could be touched off by a lightning strike, but it doesn’t predict the lightning strike. It just means this is a dangerous thing.
What we have been talking about so far is just the violent sentiments on the right. We’re now able to see violent sentiments on the left as well. And what we see is that, again, a disturbingly large number of individuals will say that the use of force is justified for causes, grievances that we naturally associate with the left, such as against the police, to stop police brutality against minorities. This is very important to see that there are violent sentiments on the left. They number about the same size or maybe a little higher than the violent sentiments on the right. We’ll be doing more work in our future surveys to sort of fine tune this balance.
But this is extremely important because we also ask questions about the Dobbs decision, use of force to restore women’s right to abortion. And this, too, yields support on the left of somewhere around 9%or 10%. And so this is what we are seeing, is that we are moving into a world where we have the potential for violence on the right and on the left. Now, I would argue that we’re still in the world where the danger is mostly coming from the right. And why is that? It’s because we are seeing individuals, political leaders, and we’re seeing media figures deliberately willing to court and stoke that violence sentiments. And those are the lightning strikes.
A good example of this is the raid on Mar-a-Lago. So what happened on August 8, as your listeners know, is the FBI raided Mar-a-Lago at 7 p.m. on August eight. Trump was the one who announced to the world that that raid occurred. He did this on Truth Social unopposed, but in a very aggressive posting here, claiming he’s the victim, the FBI is overreaching. This immediately led to a change we can pick up and track precisely on social media of the number of posts and tweets with the phrase civil war. Before Trump’s posting at 7 p.m. August 8th, the average number of tweets on Twitter with the phrase Civil War was 500 an hour going back weeks. Afterwards, it immediately shot up not just a few percent, but 3,000% to 15,000 per hour and stayed high for a long time. This is what’s underneath generating all those threats to the FBI. But it’s also not simply a social media phenomenon, because what you saw here was you saw that there had to be already millions of individuals already primed to support violence for Trump to have that kind of instantaneous reaction. And that is what we see, the cocktail we see coming from the right, which is we don’t just have the violent, combustible material, but we have individuals here who are lightning strikes and they’re doubling down.
MICHAEL MORELL: I want to finish up here with some big picture questions. You’ve painted a picture of a highly combustible situation right on the right all by itself. And then you mix in the left and, it gets pretty scary here. So I want to ask you, how fragile is our democracy? How does it compare to other times in American history when our democracy has been shaken a bit? How do you think about that question?
BOB PAPE: I think our democracy is at a precarious moment, Michael. I think our democracy is the most fragile it has been. And I think that may sound like an overstatement, but the last time we saw large numbers of middle class whites involved with supporting political violence in the United States was in the 1920s. And what we saw in the 1920s was that our two party system effectively was a shock absorber and a buffer to that. So the early part of the 1920s, we had the rise of the second KKK with millions of middle class Americans, including business owners, joining this movement. By the end of the 1920s, this had basically dissipated and the shock absorber was the two party system, which sort of basically diluted those sentiments.
In the 1960s, we saw a lot of violent protests on the left. But again, we saw shock absorbers in our two party system that essentially diluted that over time. So there were scary moments, but they didn’t last very long. The big difference with today is that the two party system is not acting as a shock absorber. It’s itself acting as an ingredient to foment or encourage violence, because what you’re seeing on the one side of the party, the Republican Party, are efforts to increase in the leadership of the party, individuals who support those violent sentiments. And this is happening not just with Donald Trump himself, the leader of this movement, but it’s also happening with those who he is supporting. And he is deliberately supporting individuals who are willing to basically overturn a democratic result and look the other way when others are using violence to overturn that democratic result.
This is very different, Michael, than we’re used to before, because, again, we’re used to thinking of the two party system as the shock absorber of our political extremism. Now, the problem is you have not just political support for violence in the mainstream, but you have political support for violence at the top edge of the leadership of one of those two parties. And that leadership supporting the violent sentiments is growing. So as we go forward here, this is a precarious moment.
MICHAEL MORELL: What does a worst case scenario look like? I know you’ve made some analogies to both Northern Ireland in the late 1960s and to the Balkans in the 1980s. How bad could this get?
BOB PAPE: We don’t have a crystal ball, Michael, going out. Once we go down this road of political violence in the mainstream, we can look forward a year or so with some high confident understanding of what are the real risks in front of us. If we start to extend out five years, ten years the range of outcomes just becomes too great. I think that will of course include very scary outcomes. So this is what you’re seeing in some of the newspapers which are trying to look past 2024 and 2028. And the further out you try to forecast, of course you’re going to get more truly nightmare scenarios. I think that’s just a mistake. I think what we need to do and this is what happens in, say, the CIA or the DHS or intelligence, is we need to work in front of us about as far as we can highly confidently forecast, which I think is about a year or so out. And so what I think we are facing in the next year, the biggest risk is for violent political protests of a mass nature that become violent.
I think about the January six level of violence, but for several different potential flashpoints. Flash point number one are the consequences of elections here, the midterms. These midterms are going to be highly consequential because they’ll determine who controls the House of Representatives and also the Senate. But the House- and why does that matter? It’s because it determines whether or not there will be impeachment proceedings against President Biden and others in the administration starting almost immediately. Marjorie Taylor Greene was just literally in Nevada. Your listeners can go and listen to her 13 minute clip in her speech just a few days ago, saying this is exactly the agenda. The agenda is win on November 8, impeach by Thanksgiving or start the movement to impeachment by Thanksgiving. And you will hear her just articulate this without any loss of clarity.
And so this means that this is a potential quite precarious outcome here. And so we have to be concerned about violence. And this could happen on either side because either side in these close elections could become upset, which is why it would be extremely important for DHS to start thinking about how to take steps, not for election security, which they do great, but for clarifying election fraud claims after November 8. So this is what we did not do after the vote in 2020. We just let the court system handle it. And everybody just said, well, the courts will decide and of course the public will follow the courts. No, we need to recognize the public needs to see transparently what’s happening. And this was something that I believe DHS should be thinking about now, not wait until we have a problem and then try to figure it out then.
In our polling, in our surveys, we see the equivalent of 7% of American adults think the use of force is justified to prevent prosecution of Trump for mishandling classified documents. That’s actually higher than that 5%. It’s still within the margin of error. So could still be the same. But it’s definitely another tactical flashpoint. And it’s important for DOJ to get out in front of this. With the raid on Mar-a-Lago DOJ effectively let Trump announce to the world what happened, and so it just did nothing to prevent or think through what would happen as the consequences of that raid. Here with the indictment coming here, this is a very different world. And so this is very important for the DOJ to take very, very seriously, not just whether to indict, but the whole atmospherics around which this is going to occur. And that’s just going to be extremely important as we go forward.
MICHAEL MORELL: Bob, a couple of really quick final questions which we need to do fast here. You’ve had a lot of interest from the executive branch and Congress, and I know that’s been growing and I know you can’t talk in detail about those conversations, but I just wanted to let people know that there’s a lot of interest in your research and it’s starting to spread to other countries. Is that correct?
BOB PAPE: Yes, that’s right. You’re quite right, Michael, and I can’t talk about that. It’s a tremendous honor to have academic research taken this seriously in the United States. Germany just brought me to Berlin for a week of discussions with the high levels of the German government. They are worried about the rise of violent populism a la the 1930s and are thinking seriously about a project based around these methods. And this is important to see that other democracies, not just an American problem, although we’re facing it pretty severely, other democracies are facing a similar set of stressors, and unfortunately this could turn out to be a real change in the next four or five years from what we’re talking about right now.
MICHAEL MORELL: And then the last question. Is anyone else doing research similar to yours?
BOB PAPE: There are other folks who are doing this, Michael, but keep in mind, we’ve started very early. We have very precise questions. We have these questions now that we can use as tracking. Others have come in here but are still mostly thinking about this from a horse race, a political horse race perspective. So it is the case that there is a small but growing circle of scholars in the United States focusing on American political violence that is that is growing. And if any of your listeners want to help us grow this at CPOST, please do we need that support to make that grow. But it has not been the case that we have studied this problem in America since the twenties. So of course, we don’t have the organization in the academic world, just like we don’t have things organized in government or the media to really understand our new problem.
MICHAEL MORELL: Bob, thank you very much for joining us. This has been an incredibly important conversation and we’ll continue it down the road. Thank you.
BOB PAPE: Yeah, Thank you, Mike. Always appreciate it.
First published on October 19, 2022 / 6:00 AM
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