Last year, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced that the Justice Department and the FBI would work with state and local agencies to combat the “disturbing trend” of violent threats against school officials. “Threats against public servants are not only illegal, they run counter to our nation’s core values,” Garland said in a statement at the time. “Those who dedicate their time and energy to ensuring that our children receive a proper education in a safe environment deserve to be able to do their work without fear for their safety.”
To many Republicans, this was tantamount to a declaration of war. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis pledged that he wouldn’t let state law enforcement agencies work with the FBI on school board threats, claiming that the Biden administration was trying to “squelch dissent.” Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts described it as an “attack on parental input.” Critics cast the DOJ announcement as authoritarian. “There is no place for the federal government to interfere with regular democratic activity,” Missouri Senator Josh Hawley said at the time.
At a Senate hearing in October, Republican senators tried to grill Garland about the memo. “These parents,” Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley said, melding parents who nonviolently protested school policies with those who made threats, “are trying to protect their children. They’re worried about divisive and harmful curricula based on critical race theory. They’re speaking their mind about mask mandates. This is the very core of constitutionally protected free speech. And free speech is deadly to the tyranny of government and is the lifeblood of our constitutional republic.” Garland, to his credit, did not backtrack. “The obligation of the Justice Department is to protect the American people against violence and threats of violence and that particularly includes public officials,” he told the senators.
The episode highlighted the degree to which right-wing politics has organized around a war on local governments, dragging members of the once-mundane bodies that oversee public schools, elections, and other basic government functions into maelstroms of threats and intimidation. With an energized base that’s willing to use violence to achieve its goals and a conservative media ecosystem that prioritizes outrage, the results could be debilitating for basic functions of American democracy.
The trend described by Garland actually exists, despite the GOP officials’ furor at its identification. In an investigation published earlier this week, Reuters reported on more than 200 instances of threats and intimidation aimed at school board members in just over a dozen states, representing what might be the tip of a much larger iceberg. One school board member in Loudon County, Virginia, told the news outlet that she had received a note addressed to her daughter last December that seems to typify the harassment. “It is too bad that your mother is an ugly communist whore,” it reportedly read. “If she doesn’t quit or resign before the end of the year, we will kill her, but first, we will kill you!”
Much of the anger aligns with the right-wing campaign against critical race theory. (Critical race theory, in its broadest terms, argues that racism has shaped American law and institutions. The anti-CRT panic, however, has since metastasized into a wider attack on efforts to promote diversity or discuss racism.) But it draws upon other areas of simmering frustration, as well. Last August, for example, anti-mask protesters harassed doctors and other experts at a Tennessee school board meeting after the board voted to adopt a mask requirement for public schools. “We know who you are, you can leave freely, but we will find you,” one angered demonstrator yelled. “You will never be allowed in public again,” added another.
What’s driving these campaigns? A key force appears to be conservative media outlets and social media networks. Fox News ran dozens of segments on Loudon County and critical race theory in May through June of last year, according to Media Matters for America. That pace appears to have increased ahead of last fall’s gubernatorial election in Virginia. Some of the segments featured Ian Prior, a longtime GOP political operative and former Trump Justice Department spokesman, who was described as a “concerned Virginia parent.” Prior was one of many right-wing activists who were presented to Fox’s audience as critics of critical race theory under more neutral descriptors.
It’s not just educators and school board members who face persistent threats, though. Attempts to intimidate school authorities are part of a larger wave of violent rhetoric against local civil servants across the country—especially against election officials. A survey by the Brennan Center for Justice last April found that one in six local election workers said they’d received violent threats related to their duties, with one-third of workers saying they felt unsafe. In a report last November, Reuters said it had documented more than 800 threats against local election officials across 12 states, with “more than 100 that could warrant prosecution, according to legal experts.”
President Donald Trump and most of the Republican Party have fueled this rage against election workers. There is no evidence of serious fraud or misconduct in the 2020 presidential election. But that hasn’t stopped Trump and his allies from falsely claiming that there was a conspiracy to steal the election from him. Most surveys show that a clear majority of Republican voters believe him. Those lies have already had tragic consequences: Trump used them to incite a mob to attack the Capitol on January 6, 2021, to stop Congress from certifying Biden’s victory, leading to the deaths of nine people.
Beyond that fateful day, the long-term consequences for American democracy could be dire. Those workers are essentially the connective tissue of our republic. They are charged with ensuring that more than 150 million people can safely and securely cast a ballot on and before Election Day. The intimidation campaigns have led some experts to worry that future American elections could be understaffed and more likely to face systemic breakdowns.
Even worse, their departures could allow bad-faith partisan actors to replace them and intentionally undermine the process. A key reason why Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election failed is because state and local election officials refused, almost without exception, to assist them. Since then, however, Republican legislatures in some key states have tightened their grip over state election machineries under the aegis of fighting “voter fraud.” And perhaps more ominously, election truthers in some jurisdictions are running for office to supervise elections themselves.
There are tens of millions of Americans who identify as conservative, and thankfully, most of them are not phoning violent threats to their local school board or trying to bully election officials into resigning. But enough of them are doing that to cause serious problems. I’ve written before about how there’s a deep and sustained current in the American political right that valorizes political violence, casting their foes as would-be tyrants and arguing that the Second Amendment gives them the right to kill cops and elected officials. My worst fear is that eventually someone (or many someones) will take these threats and rhetoric to their logical conclusion, that some local school official or poll worker will suffer for it, and that there will be no going back.