Analysis: ‘We all need to take a deep breath’ — on possible postelection violence

White House
Security fencing surrounds the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, on election day. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

For months, security experts have been warning that there would likely be a lot of destructive postelection violence. Hedging on where this violence would actually come from, they’ve just said it could be from far-right or far-left extremists depending on the outcome of the 2020 election.

I’ve been wary of buying into that, because though there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that could happen, I just haven’t seen more evidence than there has been in previous contested elections.

Part of the reason is because people are too tired to do it.

Remember, this is the year of COVID-19. We’re grieving the deaths of more than 230,000 Americans. The isolation necessary to survive has been exhausting.

We’re also grieving the death of George Floyd and numerous other African American victims of systemic racism because of renewed awareness of a phenomenon that has plagued the U.S. for centuries. That is exhausting. Then, there are the protests and riots that have been exhausting.


The mobilization to go out and vote early has been exhausting. And, of course, all of the foreign influence shenanigans — which sources have told me are far from over — have been exhausting.

That, in part, is why retired FBI agent Michael German said, “We all need to take a deep breath, realize that we’ve had contentious elections in the past, and understand that there are other threats out there” — meaning threats that are more probable.

German, who spent time undercover in domestic extremists organizations, said, “You’re probably more at risk driving to the polling place because of concerns about a traffic incident, or showering in the morning, than being a victim of political violence in this country.”

So why then is there so much talk about postelection violence?

“There’s a lot of hot rhetoric out there,” German said. “I don’t know that it’s any different than any other year.”

“There’s a persistent level of violence that comes out of these white supremacists, far-right groups and others, so certainly there’s a possibility of it happening. But I think we have to keep it in context with the knowledge that this is a persistent low-level threat,” he said. “And we have to be skeptical about coverage that blows it out of proportion.”

In other words, German said, “A shoving match in line at a polling place is not the type of violence that deserves national coverage.”

A part of his concern is that sensationalized coverage could spark a violent event.

Virginia Public Safety and Homeland Security Secretary Brian Moran said, basically, it was a long summer of protests and demonstrations “about any number of issues around our criminal justice system to right previous wrongs, and to make sure that our system is as race-neutral as possible.”

That, he said, ushered in a lot of protests and division. International scrutiny followed the unrest.

“Russia and other countries — that’s what they are trying to exploit,” Moran said.

Social media, Moran said, is a key tool that foreign actors weaponized to exploit divisions. That was confirmed after the 2016 election, when the U.S. intelligence community exposed the fake social media accounts that the Russia-based Internet Research Agency used to trick Americans into confrontations with each other.

What we ought to be worried about, other sources have told me, is not each other, but a group of people, many of whom have never set foot in America: Russian intelligence operatives.

They are a part of a massive interference operation designed to manipulate voters. Their objective is to impact the outcome of the election, but perhaps not in the way you were thinking.

Former national security adviser H.R. McMaster told me, “They don’t care who wins. What they care about is whoever wins that there is a large portion of the American population that doesn’t have confidence in the outcome.”

Considering that this group is made up of people who have committed assassinations in foreign countries without being punished, shot down a packed airliner — Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, killing all 298 aboard — with impunity, and successfully interfered in the 2016 U.S. election, with only sanctions, we probably should be concerned about what they’ve got planned for us.

“What worries me is what we don’t know,” said Jim Clapper, former director of national intelligence.

U.S. intelligence agencies confirmed, in 2017, that Moscow’s hack-and-dump tactics played a huge role in the 2016 election. But it’s not working so well this time. So, the Kremlin has relied more on amplifying divisions between racial and societal differences.

But Clapper is not convinced they’ve played all their cards.

“What might they do on Election Day?”

Among the top concerns are hacking the power grid, unleashing massive cyber-denial of service operations that could impact the polls, traffic around them and locations where votes are being counted. The list of possibilities is not a short one.

But, regardless of how long the list is, it’s important to remember that they are just possibilities.

German reminds us that “political violence in the U.S. is rare, just like terrorist attacks, so predicting it is really difficult.”

So, in the days and weeks ahead, all the sources I’ve spoken to concur with German. Their advice is to take a walk, clear your head, step away from the political chaos and your devices.

And, when you return and connect with social media, think before you click. After you click, double check what you see with a reputable source.

J.J. Green

JJ Green is WTOP's National Security Correspondent. He reports daily on security, intelligence, foreign policy, terrorism and cyber developments, and provides regular on-air and online analysis. He is also the host of two podcasts: Target USA and Colors: A Dialogue on Race in America.

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