Nervous Republicans Revive ‘Carnage’ as Turnout Strategy

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- Donald Trump declared in his inaugural address that the days of “American carnage” are over. But the man who wrote those words is summoning images of violence once again—this time as part of an attempt by anxious conservatives to persuade uninterested voters to show up at the polls and save Republican congressional majorities in November.

Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon’s new film, Trump @War, features scenes of the president’s supporters being punched, kicked, and clubbed by anti-Trump protesters, as well as a parade of liberal celebrities wishing violence on Trump—or, in the case of comedian Kathy Griffin, wielding a replica of his severed head. The film debuted on Sept. 12 on the conservative cable station One America News Network and will be broadcast several more times. Fox News prime-time hosts from Laura Ingraham to Sean Hannity have devoted substantial airtime to the supposed scourge of left-wing violence, including the black-clad, antifascist protesters known as “antifa.” And President Trump, in an Aug. 28 White House meeting with evangelical leaders, warned of “left-wing violence” if Democrats win control of Congress in the midterm elections.

“They will overturn everything that we’ve done, and they will do it quickly and violently. And violently. There is violence. When you look at antifa—these are violent people,” Trump said, according to an audiotape of the meeting provided to the New York Times.

Bannon says the bloody images of Trump supporters being attacked are a necessary motivator because voters have responded to Republican efforts to tout their tax cut and raise alarm that Democrats could impeach the president with a yawn. A series of recent polls shows that Democrats are more committed to voting in the fall elections than Republicans. An Aug. 22 Fox News poll, for example, showed that 51 percent of people who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 are enthusiastic about casting a ballot in November, vs. only 37 percent of Trump voters. Republican strategists are increasingly worried that their supporters will stay home.

The Trump @War movie’s graphic violence and claims that a Democratic victory will precipitate attacks on the president’s supporters is meant to anger them and ratchet up their intensity, says Bannon. “If we’d put it in theaters, it’d be X-rated for violence,” he says. “The film opens powerfully and focuses on this subject because it’s a motivation tool that we’ve tested with audiences.”

Whether or not this sort of fearmongering energizes Republican voters, experts who study political violence say there has been no spike in left-wing attacks. “The far left is very active in the United States, but it hasn’t been particularly violent for some time,” Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, told National Public Radio last year. Attempting to activate apathetic GOP voters with images of far-left violence is also at odds with the recommendations in a recent Republican National Committee internal report. The survey found that “base” voters are likely to show up in November, but that the party was struggling to attract voters concerned with preserving entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security.

There’s also a question of whether the film can move voters in meaningful numbers. Nielsen Co., which measures television viewership, doesn’t track ratings for One America News Network because it’s audience is too small.

To spread the message wider, Bannon says he has set up a “war room” led by Steven Cheung, who was White House director of rapid response before leaving in June, that’s organized under the auspices of Citizens of the American Republic, a new 501(c)4 group. The group, headquartered in the basement of the Capitol Hill townhouse that once housed Breitbart News, also employs pollster Patrick Cadell and a booker tasked with placing like-minded surrogates on radio and cable television. (Cheung denies any formal affiliation with the group.)

Bannon won’t disclose his backers, but says the organization is funded by “hedge fund guys and other high-net-worth individuals” and operates independent of the White House. “There is no coordination,” he says.

In addition to running on OAN, Bannon’s film will be the centerpiece of a roadshow that begins this weekend in St. Louis. “We’ll be working with evangelical groups doing events and screenings in church halls,” as well as promoting the film on Facebook and YouTube, he says. “This is very simply a get-out-the-vote technique.”

Others seem to agree. Instances of violence by antifa and other anti-Trump groups have become a staple of conservative media. On Sept. 12, much of Fox News’ prime-time lineup devoted time to the subject, including The Five, The Ingraham Angle, and Tucker Carlson Tonight, as well as Lou Dobbs Tonight on Fox Business. The message was indistinguishable from Bannon’s film.

“We are seeing a disturbing uptick in politically motivated violence, mostly from the Left,” Ingraham said during her show. She was commenting on a clip she’d just broadcast, which also appears in Trump @War, of the singer Madonna saying, “Yes, I have thought an awful lot about blowing up the White House.”

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