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Experts Warn That Election Uncertainty Could Fuel Political Violence

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Leading up to Election Day, there were warnings about a wild-card threat to the voting from armed militia-type groups. Well, there was no widespread havoc at the polls, but questions about the potential for vigilante violence remain. There are fears that a time of open-ended vote counting could be the more dangerous stretch. NPR's Hannah Allam covers extremism. She's with me now.

Hey, Hannah.

HANNAH ALLAM, BYLINE: Hi there.

KELLY: Define for us - what exactly is the threat we are talking about right now?

ALLAM: Well, I know there was a lot of worry about intimidation at the polls in the lead up to the vote. But the extremism researchers I've been speaking with and even some of the armed groups themselves have consistently said that it was the days after, not the day of, that was going to be important to watch. And here we are. I mean, we heard warnings about this very moment, a time of deep polarization, a race too close to call, preemptive victory declarations, allegations of fraud. And, you know, the worry is that it could all bubble up into some kind of showdown that eventually spills into the streets.

KELLY: So as a reporter trying to track this, what are you watching? What are you listening to right now?

ALLAM: Well, I mean, I'm watching a lot of chatter online, where people are on edge. There is a very close watching of the count. We have seen some crowds gathering over vote counting in Michigan, some protests in other states. But I mean, we also shouldn't be alarmist. We've had protests all summer. And it's still too early to say whether the election will deepen the unrest, what the scope might look like if that happens and even what it would take to prompt some kind of serious armed response. And so, I mean, all that's likely to depend on these crucial next hours and days, but it's definitely worth noting that analysts who study political violence say we're certainly not out of the woods.

KELLY: Let me focus us on President Trump, who has falsely claimed to have won the election. Again, he has not yet won the election. He has floated a conspiracy about ballot counting. He's using the word fraud. Again, this is false. There is no evidence of voter fraud. Some of his fellow Republicans have called those statements irresponsible. How much of a factor is this kind of rhetoric, Hannah?

ALLAM: Well, language matters and especially at a moment like this. Some analysts have been studying this question for years. What's the correlation between a president's rhetoric and political violence on the ground? It's a question I asked Brian Levin this week. He runs an extremism research center at California State University, San Bernardino. And he says his research shows a link between some of Trump's most inflammatory statements and spikes in violence.

BRIAN LEVIN: Whether it was after the Muslim ban proposal or after Charlottesville, we've seen violence and hate crimes also correlate and resurge not just around a catalytic event but around the president's rhetoric and how long it is sustained.

KELLY: How long it is sustained - worth just noting that is - again, that's the backdrop to what makes this moment feel so perilous.

ALLAM: That's right. I mean, things are still fluid. And we see the president's already out there tweeting furiously to his nearly 90 million followers, claiming states prematurely and, you know, really actively undermining the credibility of the vote. So if the tallies don't go his way, his base is already primed with this message that the outcome was rigged and that a Biden presidency would be illegitimate. So Levin says, yes, this is a precarious moment for the country. And so far, the rhetoric from the White House is inflaming tensions not calming them.

LEVIN: Extremism is a carnival mirror reflection of conflicts and divisions in the mainstream.

ALLAM: Yeah, and those are divisions that he says are going to continue long after the vote is settled.

KELLY: OK. Thank you, Hannah.

ALLAM: Thank you.

KELLY: NPR national security correspondent Hannah Allam.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.