Years of tensions and resentment over the perceived “witch hunt” of Donald Trump and his supporters exploded into view this week after FBI agents searched the former President’s residence at Mar-a-Lago.
From conservative pundits and lawmakers to far-right influencers, the search was cast as an existential threat to the United States, with terms like “civil war” and “tyranny” thrown around on television and online forums. Pro-Trump commentators called for mass arrests, denounced the FBI, mourned a “dark day for our republic,” and suggested that the move would result in political violence.
“This is warfare. The only rule in war is to win,” one user wrote on a popular pro-Trump forum that served as a staging ground for the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. “We need to go on offense.”
Analysts noted that there was a surge in violence and threats against FBI leaders and agents. Trump supporters picketed several of the agency’s field offices, with a larger protest planned at its Washington, D.C. headquarters on Sunday. The Florida federal judge who signed the warrant that allowed FBI agents to search Trump’s residence has been flooded with threats, with far-right messaging channels publishing his address and spreading anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.
Former law enforcement officers and experts on political violence caution that the Mar-a-Lago search is not a prelude to the possible backlash that might erupt if Trump’s various investigations, which are igniting speculation of a 2024 presidency, move forward. Trump currently faces several investigations. His Mar-a-Lago search is reportedly linked to his mishandling of classified information. An investigation by the House Committee on Jan. 6 has also been initiated. Additionally, a federal grand jury investigating attempts to overturn 2020’s election has subpoenaed Trump officials. There is also a number of state-level investigations that are probing his tax returns and 2020 election related matters.
Recent polls show Americans are more likely to believe that violence against the U.S. government could be justified. Experts warn that this type of language will be perceived as a call for arms.
“Republican politicians and media figures are playing with fire,” says Rachel Kleinfeld, a political violence analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Acceptance of violence for political ends in America is approaching the levels seen in Northern Ireland at the height of their Troubles… fanning the flames of violence through incendiary language is the worst possible thing they could be doing.”
Trump and his associates have used the anger over the FBI’s search for political gains to blast fundraising emails and pledge to hold the Biden administration to account. “I need every single red-blooded American Patriot to step up during this time,” read one email in Trump’s name sent by his political action committee on Wednesday, casting him as the victim of a “deep state” plot. It is possible that some supporters of the extreme fringes may take the apocalyptic rhetoric very seriously. This is especially true given the fact that many Republican leaders endorse and encourage the troubling language.
Continue reading: Trump Allies Expect FBI Search of Mar-a-Lago to Help Republicans in Midterms
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene posted a photo of an upside down American flag as a symbol for distress. “This is the rogue behavior of communist countries,” the Georgia Republican said in a statement. “These are the type of things that happen in countries during civil war.” The House Judiciary GOP account tweeted, “If they can do it to a former President, imagine what they can do to you.”
Only recent national security assessments confirm the dark picture that the frenetic partisan reaction to Mar-a-Lago searches. For months, Department of Homeland Security officials warned that warlike rhetoric, which was borne out of Trump’s ongoing investigation, could lead to more political violence.
“It is extremely dangerous for leaders to be stoking this type of outrage,” says Lilliana Mason, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins University who analyzes polarization and political violence in America. “The people who are using [this language] either don’t care about potential violence or are just not thinking long term about the potential consequences of riling up their voters like this in a way that could potentially explode… where their voters take this as a call to actually do something terrible.”
‘At some point it’ll explode’
Trump took immediate action to capitalise on the FBI’s search. His political action committee sent at most eight emails in less than 48 hours to help fundraise for the raid. These emails echo Trump’s threatening and urgent tone in his previous statements up until the Jan. 6th riot. “These are dark times for our Nation,” read the subject line of an email sent Wednesday morning by Trump’s Save America PAC.
Trump also cast the FBI search as an attack on all of his supporters: “It’s important that you know that it wasn’t just my home that was violated – it was the home of every patriotic American.” This particular message was picked up widely by right-wing media and pro-Trump influencers. On his primetime show on Tuesday, Fox host and Trump adviser Sean Hannity called it “a dark day for our republic.”
“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,” Hannity warned, “because they’re coming for you with the full force of the federal government.”
Republican candidates and lawmakers, as well as right-wing activists and ex-Trump administration officials, seemed to be echoing the militant rhetoric that was used in the attack against the U.S. Capitol Jan. 6., like the Oath Keepers or the Proud Boys. These groups view themselves as “the last line of defense against tyranny,” and cast the investigations into Trump as the precursors to a larger war.
“This is one of the darkest days in American history: the day our Government, originally created by the people, turned against us,” Kari Lake, a Trump-backed candidate for Arizona governor who won the Republican primary last week, said in a statement. “If we accept it, America is dead… We will not accept it.”
The New York Young Republican Club issued a statement calling for mass arrests of those involved in the search and suggested legal processes should be suspended “to secure our Republic from the insidious monsters that have wrenched it from the American People’s control.” Monica Crowley, a former public affairs official for the Treasury Department during in the Trump Administration, tweeted, “This is it. This is the hill to die on.”
Far-right activist Laura Loomer, who is running for Congress in Florida, wrote on Telegram, “The FBI just put a target on the back of every single Trump supporter in America by illegally raiding Mar-a-Lago.”
An AR-15-armed man, wearing body armor, tried to break into the FBI Cincinnati office. Then he fired at law enforcement with a nail gun before running away. It wasn’t immediately clear if that incident was related to the Mar-a-Lago search. But the attempted attack shows that the aggressive condemnation of FBI “tyranny” in this fraught environment can find an audience willing to act. “The divide between violent rhetoric online and real-world violence is closing,” says Brian Murphy, a former head of the DHS intelligence branch who is now at Logically, a tech firm that helps governments and businesses counter disinformation.
“The fact that the FBI is publicly identified as the target of attacks is significant,” Murphy says. “When this kind of rhetoric is also being shared by public officials, it gives a sense of normalcy to the language, and adds fuel to the fire.”
Users have threatened to strike back in posts made on pro-Trump forums. Users said the FBI search felt “like the prelude to civil war,” posted advice on preparing weapons and supplies, and noted that a fighting force “wouldn’t have to be very big to completely overwhelm” the U.S. government. Another poster responded: “Encouraging reminder: over 300 cops and feds stood frozen in fear versus one guy with one rifle in Uvalde,” referring to the shooter who killed 19 students and two teachers at a Texas elementary school in May.
According to Fox News, law enforcement sources have reported that there has been an increase in death threats against U.S. attorney general Merrick Garland and FBI director Chris Wray. Wray on Wednesday condemned the “deplorable and dangerous” threats against FBI agents. “Violence against law enforcement is not the answer, no matter who you’re upset with,” he said.
These numbers are consistent with recent polls that show Americans accepting more political violence. A poll by the Washington Post and University of Maryland in January found that 40% of Americans think violence against the government may be justified at times. The right is more accepting: 23% of Democrats compared to 40% of Republicans. According to another study by researchers at the University of California-Davis Violence Prevention Research Program and the California Violence Research Center released last month, more than half of Americans expect that a civil war will erupt in the U.S. sometime “in the next few years.”
Recent data shared with TIME by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), a nonprofit that tracks political violence and demonstrations, showed a significant uptick in armed protestors at recent political demonstrations, increasing the likelihood of violence. Similar trends were observed in national security agencies. “As the United States enters mid-term election season this year, we assess that calls for violence by domestic violent extremists directed at democratic institutions, political candidates, party offices, election events, and election workers will likely increase,” DHS warned in a June terror bulletin. Now, the FBI’s search of Mar-a-Lago has added another possible data point to national security analysts’ warnings.
“As a scholar I feel like we’re sort of at the precipice,” says Mason, “where at some point it’ll explode and then we won’t be able to stop it.”
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