Public figures across the U.S. are facing escalating harassment and threats of violence at a time of deep political divisions and coarsened public debate. They report an undercurrent of anxiety through their work lives that often spills into their personal lives. Some are resigning as a result, while others are receiving enhanced security, the Wall Street Journal reports. Those affected include high-profile figures such as Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who was targeted this month by an armed man who said he planned to kill him, and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who faced an alleged kidnap plot two years ago. The threats are increasingly involving less-prominent officials, such as local election supervisors and school-board members. “Our public officials…ran because they wanted to make their communities better,” said Clarence Anthony of the National League of Cities. “We’re finding a lot of them saying, ‘I didn’t sign up for this.’”
A study released by the group last November found that 81 percent of local public officials surveyed said they had experienced harassment, threats or violence in recent years. Among the factors fueling the trend were political polarization, deepening rifts over issues of race and gender, and the spread of misinformation through social media. Demonstrators are increasingly targeting public figures at their homes. After the May leak of the draft Supreme Court opinion overturning Roe v. Wade, some activists shared the addresses of justices online. Cases opened by the U.S. Capitol Police because of direct threats against members of Congress or “directions of interest,” which include incidents of harassment, increased to 9,625 in 2021 from 3,939 in 2017. Bryan Vossekuil, former director of the U.S. Secret Service’s National Threat Assessment Center, said violence against public officials is nothing new amid social discord, but there are more sparks these days to set off potential attackers. “It’s likely that extreme ideas circulate more broadly now, and for some small number, that might trigger them toward violent thinking,” he said.