For decades, Sinn Féin, a political party in Northern Ireland, acted as the political arm of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA), a terrorist group fighting to end British rule in Northern Ireland. The two groups were formally separate but shared the same goals and, sometimes, overlapping membership. Sinn Féin pursued Irish irredentism through the political process, including by running for and winning seats in the British and Northern Irish parliaments. The IRA pursued the same goals through intimidation, assassination, and bombings.
The arrangement gave Sinn Féin an edge in political bargaining. They could present themselves as relatively moderate compared to the murderers on their side. Sinn Féin could always argue that if it did not get its way, frustration would boil over and fuel the IRA’s terrorist campaign. IRA violence hung like a Damocles’ sword, an ever-present threat, a heckler’s veto over northern Irish politics. If the political process didn’t produce outcomes favorable to their cause, it could always pivot to terrorism. In exchange, Sinn Féin gave political representation and ideological legitimacy to the IRA. The Sinn Féin-IRA alliance enabled the republican side to have its cake and eat it too: I tried to play fair, but look what you made me do.
I am reminded of these dynamics when I observe the evolution of the Republican Party. For example, following the FBI’s raid on Donald Trump’s residence earlier this week, right-wing commentators exploded with threats of violence and predictions of civil war. Once beyond the pale, such rhetoric is now almost routine: Those giving it voice were refining a playbook increasingly deployed in the year and a half since the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
In the immediate aftermath of that attack, several Republican congressmen who condemned President Donald Trump, blamed him for instigating the attack, or suggested they were open to impeaching him received death threats. Michigan Rep. Peter Meijer wrote shortly after the attack about a fellow representative who bowed to the terrorists’ demands (and “terrorist” is the right word for someone who uses or threatens violence to influence politics):