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Violent Rhetoric Grew More Mainstream In Conservative, Intellectual Circles

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

It's been just over three weeks since the attack on the U.S. Capitol, a week since President Trump left office. And some conservatives are struggling with what comes next for the Republican Party. The use of violent rhetoric has grown more mainstream in right-wing circles, from conservative websites and think tanks to congressmen like Louie Gohmert and Madison Cawthorn.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

LOUIE GOHMERT: The ruling would be that you've got to go to the streets and be as violent as antifa and BLM.

MADISON CAWTHORN: Please, get on the phone. Call your congressman. And feel free - you can lightly threaten them and say...

(LAUGHTER)

CAWTHORN: Say, you know what? - if you don't start supporting election integrity, I'm coming after you. Madison Cawthorn's coming after you.

MCCAMMON: That kind of language is alarming for Christian Vanderbrouk. He's a conservative. He worked in the George W. Bush administration, and he wrote in The Bulwark about how some fringe thinkers have been emboldened by the Trump years.

CHRISTIAN VANDERBROUK: Unfortunately, the Trump administration, the last four years, has really brought a lot of people who might have been kind of at the back of the room, the cranks of the conservative movement, and really brought them into the forefront. He's been the gasoline. He's been the match. He has been the inciter of all of this. And I think that for a lot of others in the movement, they saw the crowds that he was attracting. They saw how powerful it was. And so they really faced a choice. Do we want to stay with the Republican Party and a conservative movement, or do we want to be on the outside? Some intellectuals - I can think of people like George Will or Kevin Williamson, for instance - who decided that that was enough for them. They wanted nothing to do with it. But I think that power and influence is just far too tempting for even very well-educated intellectuals.

And I think one of the more troubling things is that we've come to learn that a lot of people really sincerely believe in some of the more authoritarian and even violent ideas that they've been putting out there.

MCCAMMON: You write that the Republican Party is, quote, "too compromised by extremists to be trusted with political power any time soon." What does that mean for the party?

VANDERBROUK: I think that what it means is that there are some very difficult choices for people like me and others who called the Republican Party home for many years. We have to decide whether it's more important to be within the party trying to reform it or whether it's better to be on the outside saying we need to deprive it of power and influence.

MCCAMMON: And how are you thinking about that? I mean, what is your thought process?

VANDERBROUK: You know, I think that for me, it's liberating to be outside of the party because I can say certain things, and I can be much more broad in some of my criticisms. But I also look at people within the party like a Mitt Romney or an Adam Kinzinger who are trying to reform it, and I'm very much supporting them because I think that within the party they can have an influence that people outside the party don't have.

For instance, if Mitt Romney says that he's open to impeaching and convicting Donald Trump, it's difficult to say that he's doing the bidding of Chuck Schumer, that he is some sort of left-wing puppet. So if he were to leave the party, I think that we would lose a powerful voice for reforming it. But I think that when you look back and you say, is it easier to be a supporter of Mitt Romney or is it easier to be a supporter of Marjorie Taylor Greene and the QAnon conspiracy theory? And I think that right now, the unfortunate lesson is, is that it's much easier to be a Republican and someone who courts and supports extremists these days. And I think that that should be very troubling to anyone who considers themselves conservative or, frankly, just to all Americans.

MCCAMMON: There are 74 million Americans who voted for Donald Trump. According to NPR's polling and others, a large majority of them believe Trump's lie, that he won the election, that that it was stolen. What does that mean for them and for how the country moves forward?

VANDERBROUK: I think it's a very difficult road ahead to kind of deradicalize very large segments of the Republican base. And that's going to be a generational project. You know, look. I think that we can look back to the wisdom of the founders in this, where the founders recognized the dangers of political faction, where you have a very large minority that believes in authoritarianism. That's a scary thing for a political movement. The founders saw that the majority Republican principle is something that would be a cure for that. So I think that we just need to hold fast to our beliefs in representative democracy, and we have to stand firm.

I don't believe that simply because 74 million believes something that is objectively wrong, that that's enough of a reason to - OK, we'll meet them halfway. Conservatism used to be about standing athwart these very large movements and if you believe that they go against our principles to yell, stop. And I'm hoping more conservatives will see the wisdom in that.

MCCAMMON: Christian Vanderbrouk, thanks so much.

VANDERBROUK: Thank you, Sarah. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.