As President Donald Trump heads to Georgia for a campaign rally on Saturday, a menace is spreading across the country: a right-wing insurrection, led by the president and his supporters, to overthrow the 2020 election by intimidation or force. That threat is becoming a central issue in the Jan. 5 Georgia runoffs that will decide control of the U.S. Senate.
The insurrection has been boiling at pro-Trump rallies in the past few weeks. In Georgia, amid chants of “victory or death,” speakers have vowed to “remove” a new Democratic administration, arguing that it “doesn’t have the military on their side.” At a rally led by Donald Trump Jr., a speaker warned, “We’re getting ready to start shooting.” Last weekend in Michigan, a crowd cheered as a member of the Proud Boys declared, “We don’t want a civil war, but we’re already in one. And we’re in it to win it.” In Florida, rally leaders called the election result a “war on our homeland” and pledged, “We will not allow them to fire a man for doing his job perfect.” In Arizona, a speaker demanded the imprisonment of President-elect Joe Biden, former President Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton. “We have to protect [Trump] at any cost,” he said. Another speaker denounced House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, calling for “rebellion” and adding, “I’d love to see half of these people hung by the neck.” The crowd shouted its approval.
Trump has endorsed these rallies and has advocated—and attempted—direct interference in the election. He demanded that states “stop the count.” He tweeted, contrary to some state laws, that “any vote that came in after election day will not be counted.” He said “hundreds of thousands” of votes for Biden should be nullified, or should “count toward us,” because they were tabulated outside the view of partisan Republicans. Through the intervention of Republican legislatures or the Supreme Court—three of whose members he has appointed—he insisted that “the results of the individual swing states must be overturned, and overturned immediately.”
Trump didn’t just complain. He fired the director of federal cybersecurity, Christopher Krebs, for refusing to support his lies about election fraud. He hounded the FBI and the Department of Justice—and pressured Attorney General William Barr in a face-to-face meeting—for failing to back him up. “Maybe they’re involved,” Trump said of DOJ and the FBI, in an ambiguous smear on Fox News. On Twitter, he threatened to bar or invalidate Biden’s presidency. “Biden can only enter the White House as President if he can prove that his ridiculous ‘80,000,000 votes’ were not fraudulently or illegally obtained,” Trump wrote. He retweeted a declaration that absent such proof, Biden “cannot be considered ‘president’ ” and should be dismissed as an illegitimate “presidential occupant.”
In Georgia, Trump pressured Gov. Brian Kemp and other Republicans to “take charge,” invoke “emergency powers,” break a consent decree, “get tough” with Democrats, and “call in the Legislature” so Trump could “quickly and easily win the State.” He told Kemp, “Get it done!” When Ducey certified Biden’s victory in Arizona, Trump phoned in to a meeting of Republican legislators to attack the governor. He retweeted allegations that Ducey had run a “corrupt election,” “certified fraudulent election results,” and “betrayed the people of Arizona.”
The president’s legal advocates take the same hard line. On Nov. 19, in a press conference endorsed by Trump and the Republican National Committee, lawyers Sidney Powell and Rudy Giuliani demanded the nullification of hundreds of thousands of ballots. They denounced the FBI and suggested that “three-letter agencies”—apparently a reference to the CIA—were covering up election fraud because the agencies had used similar tricks to manipulate elections in other countries. On Wednesday, Powell repeated her conspiracy theories at a rally in Georgia with fellow pro-Trump attorney Lin Wood. Wood called the FBI “crooked” and urged Trump to fire CIA Director Gina Haspel. He called on the Republican-controlled Georgia Legislature to set aside Biden’s victory and authorize electors who would vote instead for Trump.
At times, Trump has praised, encouraged, or excused violence. On Nov. 5, he accused election workers of provoking Republican observers to “become somewhat violent.” On Nov. 14, he told police to crack down on left-wing assailants in street clashes, calling the culprits “Human Radical Left garbage.” The president instructed police, “Don’t hold back,” and he congratulated his supporters who “aggressively fought back” against “Antifa.” On Thanksgiving Day, after Georgia’s secretary of state, Republican Brad Raffensperger, refused Trump’s demands to intervene in the ballot count, the president branded him “an enemy of the people.”
Some conservative activists have joined Trump and his mobs in calling for muscle or violence. On Monday, right-wing radio host Eric Metaxas told Trump in an interview, “I’d be happy to die in this fight.” Joe diGenova, a Trump lawyer who shared the stage with Giuliani and Powell at the Nov. 19 press conference, said Krebs should be “taken out at dawn and shot.” On Tuesday, Wood, Powell, and Michael Flynn—the corrupt retired general who was pardoned by Trump last week—endorsed a statement calling for “limited martial law.” The statement urged Trump to “suspend the Constitution and civilian control of … elections” so that “the military” could administer “a national re-vote.” If Trump failed to get a re-vote, the statement said his supporters would “take matters into our own hands.”
Some zealots are already taking action. They’ve targeted election supervisors in several states, issuing death threats against officials in Vermont, calling for violence against the family of Arizona’s secretary of state, and orchestrating a hunt for a voting machine contractor who is now in hiding. On Monday, Gabriel Sterling, the Republican manager of Georgia’s elections, reported a death threat against an election worker, harassment of the worker’s family, and sexual threats against Raffensperger’s wife. “Stop inspiring people to commit potential acts of violence,” Sterling pleaded, addressing Trump at a televised briefing. “Someone’s going to get shot. Someone’s going to get killed.”
That night, on Twitter, Trump posted a video of Sterling’s plea. He dismissed it. He accused Raffensperger and Kemp of knowing about, and refusing to uncover, “massive voter fraud.” The next day, in a speech recorded at the White House, he denounced both men again. And at Wednesday’s rally in Georgia, Wood and Powell, accompanied by Flynn, joined the attack. Wood accused Sterling of conspiring with China to manipulate the election. He demanded that Kemp and Raffensperger be thrown in jail. “We’re going to slay Goliath, the communists, the liberals,” he vowed. “Joe Biden will never set foot in the Oval Office.”
The Republican Party and its Senate nominees in Georgia, David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, could have stood with democracy. They could have accepted Trump’s defeat and asked their supporters to unite behind the new president. Instead, they’ve embraced Trump’s lies and defiance. “We’re going to keep fighting until every illegal vote is thrown out,” Vice President Mike Pence pledged at a rally for Loeffler and Perdue in Georgia on Friday. He urged Republicans to “stand with” Trump in his challenges to the election, and he told the crowd—in a gesture of support for claims of Democratic cheating—“We’re on ’em this time.” This isn’t a party of law and order. It’s a party of civil war.