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The Fear Factor in Republican Politics
The MAGA movement has made political violence and intimidation a regular feature of our public life.
IN THE HUNDRED THOUSANDTH EXAMPLE of his disordered psyche, former president Trump stated on his social network that Gen. Mark Milley is guilty of “treason.”
Mark Milley, who led perhaps the most embarrassing moment in American history with his grossly incompetent implementation of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, costing many lives, leaving behind hundreds of American citizens, and handing over BILLIONS of dollars of the finest military equipment ever made, will be leaving the military next week. This will be a time for all citizens of the USA to celebrate! This guy turned out to be a Woke train wreck who, if the Fake News reporting is correct, was actually dealing with China to give them a heads up on the thinking of the President of the United States. This is an act so egregious that, in times gone by, the punishment would have been DEATH! A war between China and the United States could have been the result of this treasonous act. To be continued!!!
This is not new, but that shouldn’t diminish our outrage. On at least 24 occasions, the former president has accused critics of treason. They ranged from Peter Strzok, whose offense was exchanging worried texts with his lover to the then-anonymous administration official who penned a New York Times op-ed saying that many insiders in Trump world were aware of his unfitness to Democrats who declined to applaud at the State of the Union address. Yes, these examples seem like something out of Idiocracy, but millions of Americans, contra Salena Zito, take him literally and seriously.
Now Trump has upped the ante by including a reference to the death penalty, which is in fact a punishment available in cases of treason, not just “in times gone by.” Trump knows full well that some of his more rabid followers may interpret this as an invitation to assassination, just as the January 6th crowd chanted “Hang Mike Pence.” That thuggishness, that play of the finger near the trigger, places Trump in a category all his own in American politics.
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The stench of political violence has attached to Trump from the start. In 2016, when his critics were being bombarded by violent, antisemitic, and other abuse on Twitter, Trump did nothing to discourage it. Invited by CNN’s Jake Tapper to denounce the KKK, he declined. Every American should have recognized at that moment that we were dealing with something sinister. At his rallies, he reveled in violent fantasies of roughing up protesters and killing not just terrorists, but the children of terrorists. That summer, when talk circulated of a convention floor fight, Trump consigliere Roger Stone warned that the Trump team had plans in place in case delegates proved independent-minded: “We will disclose the hotels and the room numbers of those delegates who are directly involved in the steal. . . . We urge you to visit their hotel and find them.”
Not subtle. Threaten them with the mob. The Trump method was evident then. For historians of the Big Lie, note that Stone further elaborated on Trump’s theory of the nomination fight: “It is interesting to me that in every primary or caucus where Ted Cruz won, we have certified, proven, sworn evidence of massive voter fraud, which will later be presented to the credentials committee in Cleveland in an attempt to unseat delegates who were illegally elected . . .”
“Certified, proven, sworn evidence.” The same damnable lies that destroyed faith in our democracy among tens of millions of Americans when they were repeated, nearly verbatim, four years later.
I have often stressed that in 2016, it required only political courage to stand against Trump, but by 2020, due to the decay of decency in the GOP, it required physical courage, too. If some critical mass of Republicans had demonstrated the requisite political courage in 2016, it would never have come to this—that in the United States, political and other figures must think about their physical safety before deciding how to speak or vote. As McKay Coppins recounted in the excerpt of his forthcoming biography of Mitt Romney, by the time the Senate was considering whether to impeach Trump a second time for the January 6th insurrection, fear had become a handmaiden to Republican office holders. In 2016, Trump’s bullying and Stone’s veiled threats were shrugged off. In 2021, after witnessing January 6th, the hammer attack on Paul Pelosi, the swarm of screaming Trump supporters who surrounded Lindsey Graham in an airport after he criticized Trump, and so much more, wavering senators who were considering voting to convict Trump were warned by others to “think of your personal security. Think of your children.” And so they cowered, and failed to cast votes that would have rid our politics of Trump forever.
Romney himself has been the focus of so many credible threats that he has spent $5,000 a day since the impeachment vote on security for himself and his family. He confided to Coppins how much the base of the Republican party has changed. Whereas once his constituents in Utah were salt-of-the-earth types—law-abiding, mild-mannered Mormons, for the most part—today a large portion are transformed. “There are deranged people among us,” he told Coppins. And in Utah, “people carry guns. It only takes one really disturbed person.”
The MAGA Republican party is less like the party that nominated Romney than it is like the party that nominated Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. And it’s a mistake, in my judgment, to minimize the role that fear now plays in assisting and enabling Trump’s continued dominance.
Romney is hardly alone among members of Congress in worrying about personal security. In the first year of Trump’ tenure, threats against members of Congress quadrupled from fewer than 900 to 3,930. Threats continued to rise throughout the Trump presidency, more than doubling by 2020. After January 6th, the Capitol Police estimated that there were more than 10,000 threats of violence or death against members.
These members face their constituents in person on a regular basis. They do town halls and show up at church breakfasts and ribbon cuttings. They are at far higher risk from a stray gunman than journalists or others who also routinely receive threats. Liz Cheney displayed inspiring courage during the House January 6th Committee hearings. History will doubtless credit her, but her constituents did not. During the 2022 campaign, out of concern for her safety in Wyoming, she stopped doing town halls and other public engagements entirely.
It isn’t just members of Congress. The sense of menace has invaded every level of American politics. As Time magazine reported in 2022:
Threats against federal judges have spiked 400% in the past six years, to more than 4,200 in 2021. Of 583 local health departments surveyed by Johns Hopkins University researchers, 57% reported that staff had been targeted with personal threats, doxing, vandalism, and other forms of harassment during the pandemic. The U.S. Justice Department was forced to create separate task forces to combat the intimidation of public officials—one focused on threats to education workers, the other on threats to election administrators.
A survey of mayors found that one in three had considered resigning due to death threats and 70 percent reported knowing of someone who chose not to run for office out of fear for their personal security. A study of local officials in San Diego found that 75 percent had received threats or harassment, with women bearing the brunt.
Among election workers nationwide, 20 percent knew someone who would no longer participate due to threats and 73 percent said threats and harassment had increased in recent years. Twelve states have enacted legislation to increase penalties for harassing or threatening poll workers.
We cannot have a viable political system that relies on extraordinarily brave people—because there aren’t enough of them.
A man armed with multiple firearms was arrested outside former President Obama’s Washington, D.C. home in June. A participant in the January 6th insurrection, he had learned of Obama’s address from a Trump Truth Social tweet. He told his YouTube audience that he was looking for a “good angle on a shot.” Trump endangered the lives of the Obamas, and it’s as nothing in our news cycle.
Another gunman was apprehended near the home of Justice Kavanaugh in 2022. He was carrying burglary tools, a knife, pepper spray, and a handgun.
Following the search of Mar-a-Lago, the FBI needed to increase security for . . . the FBI. Today, everyone associated with the Trump trials—Judge Tanya Chutkan, Jack Smith, Fani Willis, and the rest—needs 24/7 security.
This level of intimidation is new. It can be countered with coordinated action by law enforcement, media, the courts, and the public—but only if we recognize the nature of what we’re dealing with. Our elaborate government and society were designed over centuries to prevent rule by fear and violence. But those ancient foes are very much alive in the MAGA GOP and cannot be wished away.