Jurisprudence

We Don’t Need a Trump-Inspired Civil War for Things to Get Real Bad, Real Fast

A mob of Trump supporters with the Washington Monument behind them, one carrying an effigy with the word "traitor" written on it and a noose around its neck.
Things escalated quickly on Jan. 6, 2021. Brent Stirton/Getty Images

The news for Donald Trump gets worse every day. Objectively worse. The search and seizure of classified documents at Mar-a-Lago has revealed that he may be facing criminal exposure in a host of ways. Allen Weisselberg, the former CFO of the Trump Organization, just pleaded guilty to 15 charges of participating in a tax fraud scheme, and has agreed to testify against the Trump Organization at a criminal trial slated for October. The investigation into Trump’s attempts to pressure Georgia state election officials to set aside the state’s 2020 results is ramping up rapidly, this week sweeping in Rudy Giuliani and Jenna Ellis. I suppose if you’re inclined to believe that this is all great news for Trump, and that—to paraphrase Steve Bannon—the whole nation is on the brink of being red pilled then yes, this is all quickly coming to a head.

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The story of Trump’s civil and criminal woes will—at this juncture—all go either one of two ways. It’s now amply clear—and Liz Cheney’s shellacking this week is proof beyond any reasonable doubt—that election denialism, Q-Anon conspiracy talk, and vigilantism is the coin of the realm in the Republican Party, and that no matter what may happen to Trump himself, the hundreds of 2.0 election-stealers and pedophile chasers that have sprung up in his image will live on beyond him and thrive. On the other hand, it’s also possible that the more Trump is revealed to be a loser and a fraud, the more inclined his followers and imitators will be to back off of supporting him, if not his authoritarian ways. Meanwhile, after the Mar-a-Lago search, last week saw a spate of violent episodes and arrests of Trump supporters threatening violence on social media. Whatever happens to Trump, the threat of imminent, uncontainable violence is either exigent, or diminishing.

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Juliette Kayyem, who always looks at these questions through the lens of deradicalization and counter-terrorism argues for this second view here.

Kayyem posits that “[a] violent movement either grows or shrinks. Its ideology is not defeated; it simply stops motivating people to action.” She further argues that that the more Trump looks like a loser, the more his followers begin to turn on one another. Kayyem writes that, as the ominous circle of accountability closes around Trump, the fever may break, and his remaining followers will be left to “end up cosplaying a civil war.” As she puts it, “the decline of MAGA looks something like that—just a smattering of people respond[ing] to the overheated rhetoric of Trump and his allies.”

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The counterargument—that the more he seems to be cornered, the more dangerous both Trump, and his followers become—has been expressed all over the place in the past week as well. It is particularly well-argued by Peter Wehner, who writes that the train has left the station and that nobody seems to have elected to disembark:

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Based on no evidence right now, Republicans are promoting a narrative that the events of this week prove that the United States government and its chief law-enforcement agency are Nazi-like, corrupt to the core, at war with its own citizens. This can’t end well.

So, it very much seems like it’s going to go one way or the other, and it remains hard to predict which road signs we should be tracking. As measured in cubic tons of my “die, bitch” emails, it doesn’t seem as though the violence and threats will be contained by Trump’s growing legal exposure, and there’s a good chance that any actual accountability will merely prove that he was a victim of deep state shenanigans and inspire his worst supporters to act on their persecution complex in frightening, lawless ways.

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But there are some signs worth watching: Mike Pence standing up for the FBI is surely one of them, as is Alex Jones’ slouching defection from Trump to DeSantis. Republicans will keep trying to triangulate between showing fealty to Trump, and cutting him off the very second it becomes too costly. That’s a performance that is increasingly feeling less tightrope than dental floss. What all this means with respect to the possibility of imminent violence turns more on the dangerously violent rhetoric still being spewed by the majority of the GOP leadership, than on whether they in fact do cut him off. The real danger of stochastic terror is that people tend to pay attention to what their leaders say, as opposed to what they do. And the real concern seems to be that despite the fact that the GOP leadership are making reasoned, tactical, fact-based calculations about when and how they break from Trump, nothing seems to be preventing them from egging on his supporters in the most reckless and incendiary ways.

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One lesson to be derived from all this is that anyone who tells you not to prosecute or criticize or investigate Trump because you will anger his supporters is delusional. His supporters are already extremely angry. We don’t negotiate with toddlers or terrorists, and holding your powder because violent extremists threaten violence has never historically worked out for the sanity-based community. But what is so very scary about the present moment—whether you find yourself on team Kayyem or Team Wehner—is the disconnect between the rational political calculus and the rhetoric being deployed. That is because dangerous words have no political cost and lies no longer matter. So the selfsame people who could dig us out of this hole, and maybe even save the GOP (and themselves, and the country…) in so doing, believe that inflammatory words also have no meaning and that it’s costless to inflame violent factions.

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I like to believe that one of the enduring lessons of Jan. 6, 2021, and the superbly well-run hearings into the events of that day, is the materialization of the fact that inciting, violent speech from on high does, in fact, incite violence. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine that anyone who has watched the hearings has failed to understand this. And yet here we are, staking our future hopes on the possibility that the people who should have come to understand after Jan 6 that sticks and stones can break your bones and that words can do much worse, have done nothing in the past week to suggest that they will tone down the talk of planted evidence, defunding the FBI, or impending civil war, even as they know these are lies. The issue isn’t whether the Republican leadership is acting in rational self-interested ways, but whether they are talking in ways that stoke violence or quell it. If the real fault line to watch is between truthfulness and deliberate violent rhetoric, I don’t imagine that any of this will, in fact, end well.

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