This week, after FBI agents searched the former President’s residence at Mar-a-Lago, years of tension and resentment over the perceived “witch hunt” of Donald Trump and his supporters came into full view.
Terms like “civil war” and “tyranny” were bandied about on television and in online forums as conservative pundits, lawmakers, and influencers painted the search as an existential threat to the United States. Pro-Trump commentators lamented a “dark day for our republic,” demanded mass arrests, criticized the FBI, and predicted political violence as a result of the decision.
This, my friends, is war. One user wrote, “The only rule in war is to win,” on a popular pro-Trump forum that was used to plan the attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. We have to take the initiative and play offense.
Analysts noticed an uptick in threats made against FBI agents and leaders, raising concerns that the escalation in violent rhetoric could inspire attacks on law enforcement. Several of the agency’s regional offices were picketed by Trump supporters, and a larger demonstration is scheduled for Sunday at the agency’s headquarters in Washington. There has been a flood of threats directed at the federal judge in Florida who signed the warrant that allowed FBI agents to search Trump’s residence. The judge’s address has been published by far-right messaging channels, which have also spread anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.
The various investigations into Trump, who is stoking speculation about a 2024 presidential run, are progressing, but former law enforcement officials and analysts of political violence warn that this may be just a preview of the backlash that could erupt if they continue. The federal grand jury investigating efforts to overturn the 2020 election has subpoenaed senior Trump officials, and there are several state-level investigations also probing 2020 election matters, as well as a legal battle over his tax returns. The Mar-a-Lago search was reportedly related to his alleged mishandling of classified documents.
This kind of language is likely to be seen as a call to arms, experts say, because recent polls show that a growing number of Americans think violence against the U.S. government can be justified; right-wing personalities have amplified the alarming rhetoric; and national security agencies have warned that the upcoming midterm elections could be a flashpoint for extremist violence.
Rachel Kleinfeld, a political violence analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says, “Republican politicians and media figures are playing with fire.” The level of tolerance for the use of force to achieve political goals in the United States has risen to levels not seen since the Troubles in Northern Ireland. They are doing the worst possible thing by using inflammatory language that will only incite more violence.
Trump and his allies have wasted no time capitalizing on public outrage over the FBI search by sending out mass emails soliciting donations and promising to hold the Biden Administration accountable. One email sent on Wednesday in Trump’s name by his political action committee painted him as the victim of a “deep state” plot and pleaded with supporters to donate. The disturbing language is being echoed and boosted by some Republican leaders, and there are signs that some of the party’s more extreme supporters are beginning to take it seriously.
In related news, Trump’s supporters think the FBI raid on Mar-a-Lago will benefit Republicans in the upcoming midterm elections.
Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene posted a tweet featuring an inverted American flag. This is the rogue behavior of communist countries,” the Georgia Republican said in a statement. In a country’s time of civil war, events like these are to be expected. If they can do it to an ex-President, imagine what they can do to you, the House Judiciary GOP account tweeted.
Recent national security assessments have painted a bleak picture, which has only been confirmed by the partisan uproar over the Mar-a-Lago search. DHS officials have been warning for months that Trump’s increasingly bellicose rhetoric since January 6 in response to the ongoing investigations into his administration raises the prospect of widespread political violence in the run-up to the midterm elections in November.
Lilliana Mason, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins University who studies polarization and political violence in the United States, warns that “it is extremely dangerous for leaders to be stoking this type of outrage.” Those who use such language “either don’t care about potential violence or are just not thinking long term” about the consequences of inciting their supporters to such extreme action.
‘Eventually, it will go off’
Trump himself wasted no time capitalizing on the FBI investigation, with his PAC sending out at least eight emails in response to the raid to raise money. The emails shared the same urgent and ominous tone as his public statements before the riot on January 6. Wednesday morning, Trump’s Save America PAC sent out an email with “These are dark times for our Nation” as the subject line.
Trump has also framed the FBI investigation as an assault on his base: To paraphrase, “It’s crucial that you understand that it wasn’t just my house that was broken into; it was the house of every patriotic American.” The right-wing media and pro-Trump influencers picked up on this message and spread it far and wide. Fox News host and Trump advisor Sean Hannity declared Tuesday to be “a dark day for our republic” on his evening show.
To paraphrase Hannity: “Make no mistake, if you are associated with Donald Trump in any way, you better cross all your I’s and dot all your T’s, because they are coming for you with the full force of the federal government.”
The rhetoric of the more radical groups, such as the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys, who led the charge in the attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6 was echoed by Republican lawmakers and candidates, right-wing activists, and former Trump administration officials. The investigations into Trump are seen as preludes to a larger war by these groups, who see themselves as “the last line of defense against tyranny.”
Trump-backed Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, who won the Republican primary last week, released a statement calling today “one of the darkest days in American history: the day our Government, originally created by the people, turned against us.” Accepting this would mean the end of America. This is not something we can tolerate.
To “secure our Republic from the insidious monsters that have wrenched it from the American People’s control,” the New York Young Republican Club issued a statement calling for mass arrests of those involved in the search. Former Trump Administration Treasury Department public affairs official Monica Crowley tweeted, “This is it. This is the place to go down in flames.
Congressional candidate and far-right activist Laura Loomer of Florida posted on Telegram, “The FBI just put a target on the back of every single Trump supporter in America by illegally raiding Mar-a-Lago.”
This past Thursday, a man armed with an AR-15 rifle and wearing body armor attempted to break into the FBI’s Cincinnati field office, firing a nail gun at police before escaping. The incident’s possible connection to the search for Mar-a-Lago was not immediately apparent. However, this attempt at violence demonstrates that there is an audience for such strident criticism of FBI “tyranny” in the current climate. Former head of the DHS intelligence branch and current CEO of Logically, which provides technology to help governments and businesses combat disinformation, Brian Murphy, warns that “the divide between violent rhetoric online and real-world violence is closing.”
Murphy notes the significance of the FBI being openly named as a target of attacks. When public officials join in the rhetoric, it normalizes the language and stokes tensions, as one official put it.
Users on pro-Trump message boards have already hinted at taking matters into their own hands. It was noted that a fighting force “wouldn’t have to be very big to completely overwhelm” the U.S. government, and that the FBI search felt “like the prelude to civil war.” A second poster chimed in, “Encouraging reminder: over 300 cops and feds stood frozen in fear versus one guy with one rifle in Uvalde,” referring to the May shooting at a Texas elementary school in which 19 students and two teachers were killed.
This comes at a time when an increasing number of Americans, according to polls, are becoming accustomed to and even supportive of political violence. A January Washington Post-University of Maryland poll found that 35% of Americans believe violence against the government can be justified, with more acceptance on the right: 40% of Republicans versus 23% of Democrats. More than half of Americans believe a civil war will break out in the United States “in the next few years,” according to a study published last month by researchers at the University of California-Davis Violence Prevention Research Program and the California Violence Research Center.
Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), a nonprofit that tracks political violence and demonstrations, recently shared data with TIME showing a significant increase in the number of armed protestors at recent political demonstrations, increasing the likelihood of violence. Agencies tasked with national security have noticed a parallel rise in. DHS warned in a June terror bulletin that “calls for violence by domestic violent extremists” were likely to rise as the United States entered midterm election season this year. These calls for violence would be directed at democratic institutions, political candidates, party offices, election events, and election workers. The FBI’s search of Mar-a-Lago provides further evidence that could support the concerns of national security experts.
For Mason, “as a scholar I feel like we’re sort of at the precipice,” where “at some point it’ll explode and then we won’t be able to stop it.”
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