Jameesha Harris, a councilwoman in New Bern, N.C., bought a gun and obtained a concealed-carry license to protect herself and her children against a spate of death threats from constituents. Deanna Spikula, the top election administrator in Washoe County, Nev., resigned after receiving a battery of menacing emails, including one warning her to “count the votes correctly as if your life depends on it, because it does.” After speaking out against book bans, Amanda Jones, a librarian in Livingston Parish, La., received a death threat from a man in Texas who saw a photo of her posted in a right-wing Facebook group.
Across the U.S., there has been a surge of harassment, attacks, and violent threats targeting civic and public officials and their families. America is a nation shaped by violent acts and founded on principles that protect free speech, even when it is ugly or incendiary. Yet the specter of politically motivated violence today has become alarmingly pervasive, and the fear it engenders is upending the political landscape, according to more than two-dozen interviews with analysts and public officials.
For the past year, TIME has tracked violent threats, harassment, and attacks targeting public officials and their families. News reports, public records, and interviews with experts and officials at all levels of government paint a portrait of a nation whose most basic institutions—election offices, city councils, municipal health departments, school boards, even public-library systems—are being hollowed out by relentless intimidation.
Some episodes of searing violence have made national headlines, from the insurrection in the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 to block certification of the presidential election to the Oct. 28 break-in at Nancy Pelosi’s San Francisco home, in which an intruder who allegedly threatened to break the kneecaps of the 82-year-old House Speaker hit her husband in the head with a hammer, according to prosecutors. There were more than 9,600 recorded threats against members of Congress last year, a jump of nearly tenfold from 2016, according to Capitol Police records.
But prominent politicians are far from the only targets. Threats against federal judges have spiked 400% in the past six years, to more than 4,200 in 2021. Of 583 local health departments surveyed by Johns Hopkins University researchers, 57% reported that staff had been targeted with personal threats, doxing, vandalism, and other forms of harassment during the pandemic. The U.S. Justice Department was forced to create separate task forces to combat the intimidation of public officials—one focused on threats to education workers, the other on threats to election administrators. So far, more than 100 of the latter have “met the threshold for a federal criminal investigation,” according to a statement from the agency.
“Local leadership is becoming a full-contact sport,” says Clarence Anthony, who served as the mayor of South Bay, Fla., for 24 years. Officials are dealing with angry neighbors “turning up at their front door, on their front lawns, attacking their children, attacking their family members when they go to the grocery store. They didn’t expect this as a part of the role. They didn’t sign up for this.”
Anthony is now the executive director of the National League of Cities, an advocacy network for more than 2,700 municipal governments. In a survey it published last November, 87% of local officials reported a rise in attacks, and 81% said they had personally experienced harassment, threats, or physical violence. “This is serious,” Anthony says. “It’s a real trend, and it’s disrupting America’s local government system.”
Many of these episodes of harassment fall under constitutionally protected free speech, leaving it to officials with limited resources to comb through angry threats to decipher which ones endanger their safety. They also disproportionately target officials who are women or people of color, analysts say. Several public officials told TIME the spike in violent threats has strained state and local budgets, forcing steps like hiring armed guards for their homes, installing bulletproof glass in local government offices, investing in trauma counseling for staff, and devoting time and resources to things like active-shooter trainings and monitoring emails and phone calls for menacing messages that might have to be reported to law enforcement.
Most of these threats are not made by deranged individuals or habitual criminals. They’re made by ordinary Americans acting in an environment in which the political discourse has been coarsened to the point that threats of violence have become commonplace, experts say. About one in three Americans now say they believe violence against the government can sometimes be justified, including 40% of Republicans and 23% of Democrats, according to a Washington Post-University of Maryland poll earlier this year. “Violent political sentiments used to be held by fringe groups that were disavowed by major political parties,” says Rachel Kleinfeld, who studies polarization and violence at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Now, violent viewpoints are held by mainstream members of the right, and are growing in acceptance on the left.”
Social media, cable news media and former President Donald Trump bear “a lot” of responsibility for the rise in political violence, a majority of registered voters say in the latest national NBC News poll.
Nearly all voters surveyed in the poll — 93% — say social media deserves a lot or some of the blame in the rise in political violence, while 87% say the same of cable news media, and 72% say the same of Trump. A majority of voters — 51% — the former president bears “a lot” of the responsibility.
A slightly higher share of voters say Republican candidates and elected officials bear responsibility compared to Democrats. And 59% say President Joe Biden bears a lot or some of that responsibility.
The survey also finds a majority of voters across political parties, including 65% of Democrats, 70% of Republicans and 71% of independents, say social media bears a lot or some of the responsibility for political violence.
”Americans are all really concerned about social media’s impact here,” said Jeff Horwitt of the Democratic polling firm Hart Research Associates, who conducted the poll along with Bill McInturff of the GOP firm Public Opinion Strategies.
The NBC News poll also found that a plurality of voters believe extreme rhetoric contributed to instances of political violence, rather viewing them as isolated incidents.