Officer Eugene Goodman, an Iraq War veteran turned police officer, was on duty at the Capitol building on 6 January 2021. As pro-Trump rioters made their way through the building, Goodman, who was guarding a corridor and stairs that led to the Senate Chamber, where senators were holed up, faced a choice. Outnumbered, how was he to face down this mob chanting “U-S-A” and “Where they countin’ the votes?”
His answer was to use himself as bait to lure the protestors to a different floor where he was able to receive backup. Goodman was Black. The rioters, some of whom carried the confederate flag, were all white.
In the past two decades, hostility in American politics has shot up. It is not always based on ideological positions but instead fermented in a dislike and distrust of different groups, a phenomenon known as ‘affective polarisation’.
This conflict has extended to many parts of American lives. You are more likely to get a child vaccinated if the person you voted for was elected president. The primary factor behind choosing a flatmate is the political preference they hold. Republicans were less likely to take up new health insurance provided in the Affordable Care Act if government involvement was hinted at in the exchange they purchased from.
This extension doesn’t always have to lead to violence. But it does make it more likely. Soon-to-be ex-president Trump played into it. In a prescient piece of research, academics Lilliana Mason and Nathan Kalmoe wanted to establish if a polarised environment would increase the likelihood of violence – or as they term it, “lethal partisanship”. They found that among the 10-15% of the population already disposed to violence, it did. While a small percentage, this equates to many millions of Americans.
Pushing further, Kalmoe and Mason established that, for some, support for violence rose again in an environment where they believed they were likely to win an election or had been cheated out of it. After all, winners rarely turn to violence – they have won.