Robert Gehrke: Political violence, fueled by hateful rhetoric, is rising. We have seen the result in Utah.

Experts who track political violence are alarmed by the rise of violent threats and attacks and expect them to continue to increase ahead of the 2024 elections.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

I never knew Craig Robertson — and I’m glad I didn’t.

To hear his family tell it, he was a gentle man with a big heart who liked woodworking and guns. Maybe that was even true at some point.

But the portrait of a jolly, harmless grandpa stood in stark contrast to the vile rants and gruesome, twisted murder fantasies I saw when I went to his Facebook profile. The page was taken down after FBI agents shot and killed Robertson at his home two weeks ago, the same day President Joe Biden visited the state.

A sampling of his work the day before his confrontation with the FBI: “PERHAPS UTAH WILL BECOME FAMOUS THIS WEEK AS THE PLACE A SNIPER TOOK OUT BIDEN THE MARXIST”



When FBI agents returned, this time to arrest Robertson, he did have a gun that he pointed at them, agents said. It’s an unfortunate ending to a pattern of political violence and threats of violence, spurred on by inflammatory, corrosive rhetoric, is becoming much more common across the country.

(via criminal complaint) This photo of a man in tactical gear was posted to Craig Deleeuw Robertson's Facebook page, according to a criminal complaint. Posts on the page made threats to assassinate President Joe Biden ahead of his visit to Utah. FBI agents shot and killed Robertson on Wednesday.

Robertson’s threats, disturbing as they may have been, are not entirely unique. As my colleague Emily Anderson Stern reported recently, every president — Republican and Democrat — in the past 20 years has received death threats from a Utahn.

But the frequency of these kinds of violent threats against public officials has risen dramatically.

According to data from the National Counterterrorism Innovation, Technology, and Education Center, the number of arrests for threats against officials has climbed significantly in recent years, more than doubling from 2017 to 2022.

Rachel Kleinfeld, senior fellow in the Democracy, Conflict and Governance Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that between 2016 and 2020, threats against federal judges nearly doubled and there were 10 times as many threats against members of Congress. Fifteen percent of local officials reported having received threats and that number is as high as half in some jurisdictions.

And that doesn’t speak to politically motivated violence against average citizens, like the Lake Arrowhead, Calif., store owner shot and killed last week over a Pride flag, or a man in Ohio killed in his yard last November by a neighbor who was a Trump supporter and accused the victim of being a Democrat.

A Reuters review of records this month identified 213 cases of politically motivated violent acts since Jan. 6 that have left 39 Americans dead.

“There is an ecosystem of extreme media — that is talk radio, that is print, that is TV — that is all further amplified by the sense that white, Christian, traditional Americans are under threat and it’s normal and OK to use violence to preserve that way of life,” Kleinfeld said.

(Via a neighbor of Craig Robertson) A neighbor who requested anonymity shared this photo of FBI agents outside Robertson's Provo home following a raid during which agents shot and and killed Robertson.

Take former President Donald Trump’s reframing of the Jan. 6 insurrection during his interview with Tucker Carlson broadcast Wednesday night.

“People in that crowd said it was the most beautiful day they ever experienced,” Trump said. “There was love and unity. I have never seen such spirit and such passion and such love. And I’ve also never seen — simultaneously and from the same people — such hatred at what they’ve [liberals] done to our country.”

It’s an us-and-them spin, where otherwise loving people are driven to violence because evil is attacking their way of life.

Katherine Keneally, who worked on terrorism investigations with the New York Police Department and now studies extremism at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, said conspiracy theories and distrust of government were on the rise during the COVID pandemic and through the Jan. 6 riots.

“We’re seeing an increase in the number of people who just believe violence is an acceptable solution to the beliefs, or policies, or people they disagree with,” Keneally said.

It certainly appears Robertson was among those unfortunate people swept up in that whirlwind.

Looking at his social media posts, Keneally said, “he certainly checked all the boxes for someone who was likely to commit violence of some sort.”

What was troubling to me was that within hours of the FBI shooting of Robertson, many of the same media outlets that have been pumping out conspiracies for years seized on his death and tried to recast him as a victim or a martyr.

“This hit on him was executed to make Americans afraid. Mostly it’s made people upset at the Stasi,” Mike Cernovich, a right-wing misogynist and high-profile conspiracy promoter, wrote on the platform once called Twitter.

“People have mailed credible threats to presidents for years,” wrote Glenn Beck. “They’ve (rightly) been investigated for it, but I’ve never seen the FBI gun anybody down for it. Ever. This is not normal.”

And on Wednesday, Utah Sen. Mike Lee joined in pinning the blame on the FBI.

“It’s of deep concern anytime law enforcement acts in a way that results in the taking of a human life,” Lee said. “People have got to be held accountable, and we shouldn’t expect anything less.”

Look, maybe the FBI could have handled the situation differently. At the same time, pointing a .357 revolver at law enforcement, as the FBI said occurred, rarely ends well.

Many of these same people, had Robertson been Black, would have blamed him for not complying with police. They ignore their hypocrisy and shirk their share of responsibility for how this unfolded.

Not only that, they are fueling the conspiracies, resentment and mistrust that help push people like Robertson toward threats and violence. The accountability that Lee is seeking should work both ways.

“When violence gets normalized, and when it’s seen that you can be lauded or considered a martyr if you commit violence, people are more likely to do it,” Kleinfeld said.

It becomes cyclical, Keneally said, with resentment fueling more and more anger, and doesn’t show signs of letting up. She said she anticipates that, as the 2024 election approaches, we’ll experience even more threats and potential for political violence.

“It’s worrying because, as we saw what happened in Utah … we’re going to have candidates traveling and there are going to be a number of locations where people are campaigning,” she said. “That increases the potential for various locations to be targeted.”

So how do we curb the spread of virulent hate?

Kleinfeld said we need to re-establish societal standards that such behavior is unacceptable, and both researchers said that begins with accountability.

That can be done through arrests — like we saw after Jan. 6 — or it can be imposed through civil lawsuits, like the defamation cases against Alex Jones and Fox News. I also wrote recently about a case against Ammon Bundy for lies and conspiracies they spread, and how these lawsuits might show us the inner workings of these extremist organizations.

Kleinfeld also — to my surprise, frankly — singled out Gov. Spencer Cox’s push to have people “disagree better,” which she said incorporates the best research available to convey that violence and threats are outside our community norms.

As I see it, it will also take the right-wing pundits — who have spent years churning out inflammatory, hate-filled rhetoric and spinning wild fantasies — recognizing that their words can have consequences among their vulnerable followers.

In some cases, like Robertson’s, those consequences can be deadly.

Correction: Aug. 26, 2023, 11:16 a.m.This story has been updated to correct the hometown of the California store owner shot for displaying a Pride flag.