A longshot candidate for governor in the U.S. state of Missouri and his supporters describe his use of a flamethrower at a recent "Freedom Fest" event outside St. Louis as no big deal. They said it was a fun moment for fellow Republicans who attended, and that no one talked about burning books as he torched a pile of cardboard boxes.
But after the video gained attention on social media, State Sen. Bill Eigel said he would burn books he found objectionable, and that he'd do it on the lawn outside the governor's mansion. He later said it was all a metaphor for how he would attack the "woke liberal agenda."
"From a dramatic sense, if the only thing in between the children in the state of Missouri and vulgar pornographic material like that getting in their hands is me burning, bulldozing or launching (books) into outer space, I'm going to do that," Eigel said in an interview with The Associated Press. "However, I would I make the point that I don't believe it's going to come to that."
Experts say Eigel's use of the flamethrower is a sign that rhetoric and imagery previously considered extreme are now being treated as normal in American politics. While Eigel didn't actually destroy books, his later statement about burning ones he deemed offensive ratcheted up fears that the video's circulation and his words on social media could help take the U.S. to a darker place.
"The slippery slope is that everything is a joke — everything can be kind of waved away," said Kurt Braddock, an assistant professor of public communications at American University in Washington. "Everything can be seen as just rhetoric until it can't anymore and people start using it as an excuse to actually hurt people."
The 30-second video that put Eigel at the center of a social media storm is from a Sept. 15 event for Republicans at a winery near tiny Defiance, Missouri, about 48 kilometers west of St. Louis. He and another state senator shot long streams of flame onto a pile of cardboard in front of an appreciative crowd.
The video posted on the X platform, formerly known as Twitter, caught the attention of Jonathan Riley, a liberal activist in Durham, North Carolina, who posted Sunday that it showed "Missouri Republicans at a literal book burning," though he'd later walk that statement back to a "metaphorical" book burning.
"It fit a narrative that they wanted to put out there," Freedom Fest organizer Debbie McFarland said about claims that Eigel burned books. "It just didn't happen to be the truth."
Some of Republicans' skepticism over the online outrage stems from Eigel's status as a dark horse candidate to replace term-limited Republican Gov. Mike Parson. The best known candidates for the August 2024 GOP primary are Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft and Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe.
The Ashcroft campaign declined to respond to the video, the uproar it caused or Eigel's follow-up statement. Kehoe's campaign had no official comment, but Gregg Keller, a Republican consultant working on Kehoe's campaign, said Eigel's promise to burn objectionable books is "typical electioneering hyperbole."
He added, "I would challenge you to find me any non-psychotic Republican who has actually burned" a book deemed objectionable by conservatives.
Eigel posted on the X platform that his flamethrower stunt was meant to show what he would do to the "swamp" in the state capital of Jefferson City, but "let's be clear, you bring those woke pornographic books to Missouri schools to try to brainwash our kids, and I'll burn those too -- on the front lawn of the governor's mansion."
Republicans across the U.S. are backing conservative efforts to purge schools and libraries of materials with LGBTQ+ themes or books with LGBTQ+ characters. The issue resonates with Republicans in Missouri. An AP VoteCast survey of Missouri voters in the 2022 midterm elections showed that more than 75% of those voting for GOP candidates thought the K-8 schools in their community were teaching too much about gender identity or sexual orientation.
The outcry also comes after Missouri's Republican-supermajority Legislature banned gender-affirming health care for transgender minors and required K-12 and college students to play on sports teams that match their sex assigned at birth. Eigel has sponsored measures to ban schools from teaching about gender identity or gender-affirming care and to make it a crime to perform in drag in public.
Aggressive and even violent imagery have long been a part of American politics. It can sometimes backfire.
Large guns have been a popular prop for some Republicans. Last year, a Black candidate seeking the Republican nomination in an Arizona congressional district aired an ad in which he held an AR-15 rifle as people wearing Ku Klux Klan robes and hoods tried to storm a home. He finished last.
In Missouri in 2016, Republican candidate and ex-Navy SEAL Eric Greitens ran an ad featuring him firing 100 rounds from a machine gun on his way to winning the governor's race. After a sex and invasion-of-privacy scandal in 2018 forced him to resign, he attempted a political comeback in the state's 2022 U.S. Senate race, running an ad featuring him with a shotgun declaring he was going hunting for RINOs, or Republicans in Name Only. He finished third in the primary.
Flamethowers also have popped up previously. In 2020, a GOP congressional candidate in Alabama showed her support for then-President Donald Trump by torching a mockup of the first articles of impeachment against him. She finished third in the primary. And in South Dakota, Gov. Kristi Noem's staff gave her a flamethrower last year as a Christmas gift.
Experts who study political extremism said images involving fire or bonfires have long been associated with extremist groups. Eigel's critics quickly posted online images involving the Ku Klux Klan and Nazi book burnings before World War II.
Evan Perkoski, an associate political science professor at the University of Connecticut, said it's been "traditional" for extremist groups to use images of fire to "simultaneously intimidate people and signal their intentions to destroy what exists and to rebuild or start over."
"We've seen this time and time again from groups across countries where groups will burn effigies, crosses and other items, or even just film themselves around large conflagrations," he said in a email to AP. "A large part of their motivation is the symbolic, frightening nature of fire."
Experts continue to worry about how social media can spread extreme or violent images or words to potentially millions of people, increasing the chances of a single person seeing the material as a call to violence.
Javed Ali, a former senior FBI counterterrorism official who's now an associate professor at the University of Michigan, said law enforcement agencies struggle with thwarting homegrown political violence. He said the sheer volume of social media postings means, "Sometimes, you almost have to get lucky in order to stop it."
Braddock, the American University professor, said that after portraying a flamethrower as a weapon against "the woke agenda," Eigel's supporters don't need "that big a leap of logic" to see it as a tool for settling actual political grievances. Talking about book burning enough can plant the idea in people's minds so that "people think it's actually a righteous thing to do."
Ali added: "That's a pretty dangerous game to play."
Eigel said he's not worried the video will inspire violence in "reasonable, everyday Missourians," which he said is the majority of people. But he said he's concerned about the number of threats he, his family and his staff have received as a result.