It was bad enough that Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak, a moderate Democrat, was verbally assaulted in late February as he was departing a restaurant with his family by a pair of bellicose men who threatened to hang him. Even more disturbing were the supportive remarks from Republican officials who lauded the attack.
“We should string you up on lamppost right now!” “They hang traitors!” shouted the men, one of whom recorded his own video and posted it on social media, as they walked out to the parking lot. And two Republicans running for the nomination to replace Sisolak for governor—Reno attorney Joey Gilbert and Las Vegas council member Michele Fiore—lauded it: “I cannot think of a more deserving person,” Gilbert wrote, while Fiore chimed in that Sisolak was “lucky it was just words.”
This kind of rhetoric is not simply violent but eliminationist in nature: That is, it’s discourse intended not simply to oppose a political or cultural foe but to dehumanize and demonize them, to render them nonhuman objects fit only for elimination—vermin, diseases, existential threats. It’s a powerful precursor to real-world violence because it not only obliterates any compunction about killing, it positively creates permission for it.
It’s the kind of rhetoric, as I’ve long discussed, that has played a central role in the radicalization of the American right, having come to the fore of conservative discourse alongside the rise of Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, and a whole generation of hate talkers. Moreover, it has come front and center in right-wing discourse over the past year and a half, unleashed by the electoral defeat of a president who had become the nation’s eliminationist-in-chief.
The incident in Las Vegas’ Summerlin neighborhood is only one of multiple similar instances indicating that the spread, frequency, and intensity of this rhetoric is becoming thick on the ground, particularly in regions where far-right “Patriot” movement politics dominate—and being encouraged by ostensibly mainstream Republican politicians. Moreover, we’re also seeing it become normalized on right-wing media like Fox News, where Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham have made it a staple in their audiences’ nightly infotainment diet.
The men who verbally assaulted Sisolak self-identified as Patriots in their video. “You running into a Patriot now. Huh? Huh?” the man recording the encounter—later identified as Justin Andersch, a far-right podcaster from Las Vegas—can be heard demanding of Sisolak as they exit the restaurant into the parking lot. After walking away back toward the eatery, he briefly exults for the camera: “Patriot shit!”
The encounter opens with the man asking Sisolak to pose with him for a selfie, after which he attacks: “I can’t tell you what a piece of f—-ing s—- you are,” the man says.
“Sorry to hear that,” Sisolak replies, and steps away toward the door.
“You New World Order traitor piece of shit bastard,” the man continued. “You’re in here without security?” he shouts. “Yeah, you piece of shit. I’m surprised you have the balls to be out here in public, punk. Out here without a cop, without security? Whoooo! You got balls on you, boy!”
Sisolak’s wife, Kathy—a Nevada native of Chinese descent—was also a target of the hate spewed by the men. When she brushed up against Andersch, he cursed: “Don’t touch me, lady! Selling us all down the river! You working for China piece of shit!”
Then came the threats: “You fucking traitors! We should string you up on a lamppost right now, pussy boy!”
A man who accompanied him outside, telling the Sisolaks to leave, chimed in: “Do you know what they do to traitors? They hang them!” Andersch loudly agreed, and continued to badger Sisolak out to his car, calling him a “treasonous, China-working cocksucker motherfucker,” adding: “Whoooo! You’re lucky I’m a law-abiding citizen!” He finally broke off the assault when Sisolak’s daughter Ashley caught up to them.
The rhetoric and conspiracy theories spouted by Andersch have become conventional wisdom among the Patriot crowd, including Gilbert, who claims that Donald Trump is the “real” president, and that he won Nevada by 44,000 votes. Similarly, Gilbert has accused Dr. Anthony Fauci of “murder,” calling him a “psychopath” who “should be in prison.”
Afterwards, Gilbert—a former boxer who was part of the mob that assaulted the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021—published a long post on Facebook celebrating the threats. “That time is upon us where these fraudulently elected leaders of ours will not be able to walk the streets alone,” it opens. “They should not get a free pass. They won’t be able to go to restaurants, they won’t be able to go in public spaces without being confronted for the damage, harm, misery and murder they caused to the citizens AND CHILDREN of this State and country.”
Gilbert goes on to say that “I cannot think of a more deserving person” for the abuse “than the corrupt, bought and paid for hack, Steve Sisolak —to be treated that way. Hell no I do not condemn it. You earned it Steve. You absolutely earned it.”
He added a warning to Sisolak that “it’s coming—just wait till everyone finds out about what was really in that vaccine and how many people were actually murdered and would not have died, had you provided them with proper treatment from the very beginning … I hope everyone realizes what this man did to the older folks in this State that he murdered in the hospitals with Remdesevir.”
Fiore—a notorious figure in Nevada politics with close ties to the Bundy family (she helped negotiated an end to the 2016 Malheur Wildlife Refuge standoff)—was asked about the incident by Las Vegas Sun reporter Jessica Hill, and responded: “Governor Sisolak is fortunate it was just words. If you look at the history of dictators pitchforks will be next.”
Fiore was so proud of the response that she posted Hill’s tweet on Facebook. One of the commenters asked: “Do they make a semiautomatic pitchfork??”
“What stops these two men from shooting Sisolak and his wife? Nothing,” remarked Tiffiany Howard, a UNLV associate pastor, to Nevada Current. “If you have a very weak statement from the audience these two men are pandering toward, which is the Republican Party, and say things like ‘you should be lucky they didn’t come out with pitchforks and fire’ then that will be the next step. We should be more than a little bit nervous.”
Some Republicans did speak out to criticize the assault, including Sisolak’s likely opponent in the fall, Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo, who commented: “Hateful verbal abuse and violent threats have no place in our political system.” Similarly, Michael McDonald, chairman of the Nevada Republican Party, said that “there is no place for the behavior and violent threats we saw against the Governor on that video this weekend.” (McDonald qualified his remarks by claiming that Democratic Congresswoman Maxine Waters did the same thing in encouraging the confrontation of Trump administration members in public, but neglected to note that members of his party were encouraging far worse.)
“Violence has no place in American political discourse,” Heath Mayo of the nonprofit Principles First told the Las Vegas Sun. “There are people in the (Republican) Party right now who think that’s OK. If you’re losing or if someone doesn’t do what you want them to do and they’re a public official, you have a right to go intimidate them and harass them. That’s anti-American.”
Eliminationist rhetoric has long been a powerful undercurrent in right-wing politics, but it has typically been sublimated as “jokes” or “hot talk” that broadly suggest violence. The current trend bubbling to the surface has no such amelioration—these are straight-up calls for violence and celebration of the idea, endorsed publicly by ostensibly mainstream political figures. Remember the audience member at the Turning Point USA event in Idaho hosted by Charlie Kirk, who asked:
At this point, we’re living under a corporate and medical fascism. This is tyranny. When do we get to use the guns? [Crowd whoops.] No, and I’m not, that’s not a joke, I’m not saying it like that. I mean literally, where’s the line? How many elections are they gonna steal before we kill these people?
When the video hit social media and went viral, most Idaho Republicans were silent—except for the local Republican legislator from Nampa, Rep. Ben Adams, who tweeted that it was a reasonable question:
Our Republic would not exist without this kind of rhetoric. The question is fair, but Charlie Kirk probably isn't the person to ask.
Indeed, while the viral video created a brief stir among the mainstream liberals this rhetoric targeted, the reality was that among right-wing circles online, this kind of discussion was in fact already quite commonplace—particularly among the Patriots who were eager to defend the cause of the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection. After all, talk of a “civil war” had been circulating in militia-movement circles since its origins in the 1990s, and had intensified as they became unleashed during the era of Donald Trump’s candidacy and tenure as president.
It has been especially acute since Trump lost the election in November 2020, an event that spurred a furious deluge of violent threats directed at liberals and leftists in right-wing social media circles. More recently elected Republican officials have indulged in it, such as Arizona Congressman Paul Gosar’s bizarre anime video in which he fantasized about killing Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Joe Biden, or Wendy Rogers’ recent speech to a white nationalist gathering in which she demanded “a newly built set of gallows” for Democrats and liberals.
Just this week, Laura Ingraham’s Fox News program featured a sublimated kind of eliminationist rhetoric: depicting liberals not only as vile humans beyond the pale of acceptable behavior, but a dire existential threat—to American children.
Discussing Florida’s anti-LGBTQ “Don’t Say Gay” legislation, Ingraham launched into a defense of the bill by claiming that its critics are pedophiles who want to “sexually brainwash” young children at school, with a chyron reading: “Liberals Are Sexually Grooming Elementary Students.”
When did our public schools, any schools, become what are essentially grooming centers for gender identity radicals? As a mom, I think it's appalling, it's frightening, it's disgusting, it's despicable. Florida just passed a bill to keep this type of sexual brainwashing out of schools. Democrats, though, claim the bill is bigoted, branding it as the "Don't Say Gay Bill." Well, nice try. The real controversy, though, isn't this bill. It's that schools are peddling gender ideology when our international rankings in math, science, and reading are down across the board.
Ingraham went on to argue: “It’s not ‘Don’t Say Gay,’ I don’t think anyone’s saying that. We’re saying that children are innocent, and their innocence should be protected.”
This kind of rhetoric is structurally similar to ancient antisemitic “blood libel” discourse claiming that a Jewish cabal wants to sacrifice children for their blood, demonizing the targeted population by depicting them as a lascivious threat to people’s young offspring. The same kind of structure is at work in the QAnon conspiracy theory claiming that Democrats secretly operate a global pedophilia ring with the purpose of harvesting the blood from children so that life-extending adrenochrome can be gotten from it.
After years of gradual radicalization, eliminationism is now becoming the American right’s open and unapologetic mode of politics. And as long as “decent” people turn away and pretend it isn’t happening, it will poison our discourse and our democratic institutions beyond recognition.