Less than six months ago I lambasted the bloodlust rhetoric of U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert. I worried that leaders like the congresswoman could be engaged in a competitive spiral to prime their base.
At the time, I wrote that those leaders were “cultivating resentment, anger and hate.” I forgot to include violence. But that is where we find ourselves less than a half year later.
The rhetoric has not gotten better, but rather descended into casual references to treason and execution.
First, Pearson Sharp, a reporter from the farther-right-than-Fox One America News Network (OAN), went on a riff against anyone who contradicts the assertion that the 2020 presidential election was rigged. Specifically, he speculated that hundreds or thousands of people were engaged in a “coup against the presidency,” labeled each a “traitor,” and noted that “a good solution for dealing with such traitors: Execution.”
Only a few days later, Garrett Flicker, the current Denver Republican Party chairman, made a Facebook post asking whether teachers should “be charged with treason?”
When one response challenged whether Flicker meant to imply the death penalty would be appropriate, Flicker wrote “radical ideas that lead to revolts and mass violence always lead to death” before equivocating and stating that fines and prison could be utilized instead.
Maybe Flicker did not understand the irony of his statement?
Notwithstanding the specious merit of his assertion – history is replete with peaceful radicals like Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela, to name a few – he would substitute state-sanctioned killing or vigilante justice as an answer.
And that is precisely the danger.
The same logic Sharp and Flicker espoused led Kyle Rittenhouse to kill two men and injure another at a protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin. As prosecutors in Rittenhouse’s case wrote, the teenager “willingly and intentionally put himself in violent situations in Wisconsin that do not involve him in order to commit further ats of violence.”
It is the same rhetorical gasoline John Eastman, U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn and Donald Trump Jr. poured on the mob’s nascent fire prior to the Jan. 6 insurrection. Rudy Giuliani literally called for “trial by combat.”
That is the pot that Sharp and Flicker have stirred. One in which Americans justify killing each other. Could anything be less American as we celebrate the Fourth of July?
Thankfully, Sharp received widespread condemnation and multiple replies challenged Flicker’s comments. Unfortunately, it was not universal. QAnon chat rooms were filled with “glee” after Sharp’s comments and saw it as “proof that mass executions were right around the corner.” Replies to Flicker included “Indeed,” “Definitely,” and “Surely.”
I doubt Sharp or Flicker wish to actively engage in the killing of other Americans. Rather, they seem caught up in an ugly concoction of machismo, vitriol, rhetoric and one-upmanship.
But given their public following, simply giving voice to such violence could be tantamount to the actual act. They have helped create echo chambers were the less restrained fringes feel it is not only acceptable to engage in violence against those with whom they disagree, but patriotic.
Should people die in the aftermath of their comments – and I believe that will be the case eventually – even the First Amendment will not protect people like Sharp or Flicker. You cannot yell “fire” in a crowded theater and you cannot repeatedly call for the execution of fellow citizens.
That is probably why OAN’s attorneys forced Sharp to walk back his statement. And maybe why Flicker offered a wet-rag argument that other punishments would be acceptable.
The country is polarized and politically divided. But our leaders and opinion makers must refrain from their reliance on the language of violence. If they do not, it will have tragic consequences.
Mario Nicolais is an attorney and columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system, health care and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq