Trump and the Violence Next Time
In anticipation of charges against him—expected from the investigation arising from his hush money payments to adult actress Stormy Daniels, or one of several other ongoing investigations—former President Donald Trump has denounced law enforcement, called for protests, and issued darkly foreboding warnings. The echoes of January 6th are unmistakable. As Tom Nichols notes in the Atlantic, Trump’s rhetoric appears aimed at inciting anger and drastic action. Violent threats online have reportedly spiked.
On March 23, Trump posted an all-caps message on his social media platform saying that Alvin Bragg, the Manhattan district attorney who may bring charges, is “JUST CARRYING OUT THE PLANS OF THE RADICAL LEFT LUNATICS. OUR COUNTRY IS BEING DESTROYED, AS THEY TELL US TO BE PEACEFUL!” As “they”—the radical left—“tell us to be peaceful.” It’s giving permission for violence, if not calling for it outright.
Later the same day he added a picture of himself holding a baseball bat looking like Al Capone in The Untouchables next to a picture of Bragg. In case anyone didn’t get it, Trump added another post the next day warning of “potential death & destruction.”
Trump and his more radical supporters are unsubtly attempting to extort state and federal prosecutors into putting him above the law. That leads to fears of political violence—after all, they’ve done it before—and to questions whether prosecuting an ex-president and current presidential candidate for the first time in American history is worth it.
On principle, it’s absurd to tell law enforcement to let crimes slide because the alleged criminal has fans who might get violent. Rather, if anyone decides to commit a crime—especially a violent attack on police, the FBI, courts, or other parts of the law enforcement system—then they ought to be arrested and prosecuted.
But prosecuting a former president is more than just a legal question. How worried should we be about violence? At the extreme end, could a prosecution spark a civil war, or some terrible string of events America could avoid by letting Trump off the hook?
We should take seriously the potential for violence, but we should also take care not to overstate it. In particular, we’re unlikely to see a repeat of January 6th, with a violent mob storming government buildings. Here’s why:
Private Citizen, Not President
On January 6th, Trump was in the White House. Keeping a president in power has more appeal to more people than keeping a private citizen out of jail. He’s less present in the news (relatively), and lacks the trappings and powers of state. His promises of pardons are now if he can, not only if he will.
As much as MAGA members of Congress, parts of conservative media, and the online right will cry that charging Trump is a grand injustice—and somehow means that a nebulous “they” are “coming for” average citizens—the stakes are lower, with less impact on regular Americans. Out of office, Trump has less ability to draw people out and to shape the security environment in which protests take place.
No Specific Date
The post-election calendar is set well in advance. Congress formally reading the Electoral College votes on January 6 every four years is the last bit of constitutional mechanism before a presidential inauguration. As other prongs of Trump’s coup attempt failed, such as trying to get swing states Joe Biden won to send fake Electors for Trump instead, the congressional vote took on extra importance.
Trump hyped it for weeks, starting with his notorious December 19, 2020 tweet: “Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!” With a date in place, overlapping MAGA and QAnon circles had something to organize around, and get excited about. “Stop the Steal,” a private group created after the 2020 election in response to Trump’s lies, helped plan the rally, and they had the sitting president as a draw. Interested people had the details they needed to make travel plans.
One of the clearest signs: Some people came to the National Mall that day wearing merch with the date on it.
There’s no equivalent discrete moment regarding Trump’s criminal cases, no date to organize around. We’ll likely see announcements of the charges, reports of developments, and court appearances, but no single big event scheduled in advance. Individuals might respond to various moments with violence, but it will probably be sporadic, like last August when a man attacked an FBI building in Cincinnati three days after federal agents executed the search warrant at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home/resort.
It’s not impossible that disruptive protests could arise, like last year’s American version of the Canadian “trucker convoy.” But if there are protests, they will probably be small and nonviolent. We’re unlikely to see a big, unruly crowd, one that can turn into a riot, and provide cover for planned action by militias as the Capitol attack did for the Oath Keepers.
It’s still early, but the record so far seems to bear this out. On Saturday March 18, Trump (falsely) claimed he’d be arrested Tuesday March 21 and called for protests. So few people attended that they were outnumbered by both counterprotesters and media. Short notice and lower stakes means fewer people come out.
The January 6th Prosecutions
One reason rallies are so sparse is the law enforcement response to the Capitol attack. Hundreds of participants have been convicted of or pleaded guilty to federal crimes, including forced entry, destruction and theft of property, and assaulting police officers. Multiple Oath Keepers have pleaded or been found guilty of seditious conspiracy and sentenced to years in prison. They won’t be able to conduct violence on Trump’s behalf now, even if they wanted to.
The arrests and convictions are showing signs of a deterrent effect. When asked to help protest Trump’s impending arrest, Ali Alexander—who founded “Stop the Steal,” helped organize the pre-riot rally, and testified before a grand jury about January 6th—said he’s “retired.”
On far-right social media, warnings spread that protests were a trap by federal agents. For a community with a conspiracy-theory mindset, where fear of persecution by the “deep state” already runs rampant, friendly voices saying pro-Trump protests are an FBI setup is no small thing. This was apparent when post-January 6th protests at state capitols didn’t materialize. It’s likely more prevalent now that they can’t tell themselves Trump is secretly battling the deep state from the Oval Office.
America is pretty good at not allowing the same attack twice. To make grim comparisons: After both Pearl Harbor and 9/11, the United States worked to make sure those styles of attack would not succeed in the future.
So it is with January 6th. American law enforcement is taking threats of far-right violence more seriously than a few years ago. The FBI and Department of Homeland Security issue public warnings about QAnon as a potential source of extremist violence. Police in New York and Washington, D.C. increased their presence this week in response to the possibility that Trump would be charged, erecting barricades around courthouses, the U.S. Capitol, and Trump Tower.
If anyone wishes to come out and peaceably express their displeasure over Trump facing charges, that is their right, and it’s important police respect it. But after January 6th, security forces are more prepared for the possibility of violence associated with this cause, and more likely to see it as anti-American and anti-cop.
A lot of the people online and in the media who threaten political violence—whether by themselves or others—or fantasize about a second Civil War are all talk. As deep into lies as the MAGA movement has gotten, as much as conservative media will try to rile up viewers, the number who would contemplate domestic terrorism, let alone act on it, isn’t large. Some who might have are behind bars, and others are more aware of the consequences. The possibility of individual or small group attacks is significant enough that law enforcement should treat it as a serious threat, but it is not a reason to refrain from properly administering criminal justice.
However, while the threat of political violence may not be especially large in the near term, the legal process will go on past the first Republican primaries—and, given the number of investigations and their complicated nature, likely beyond the 2024 election. Manhattan D.A. Bragg has received death threats, and he hasn’t even filed charges yet. Prosecutors, judges, and juries in Trump cases will need extra protection.
Two final thoughts. First, again, the possibility of violence from lone actors, including deranged individuals, cannot be discounted. Individuals are inherently harder than groups to identify and stop in advance. Trump’s calls for protests and warnings of death and destruction may be heard by some individuals as a call to action. If 99.9 percent of Trump supporters would never commit political violence, that still leaves thousands who might.
Second, it must be emphasized that the unprecedented, country-threatening actions here are those of Donald Trump, not of the Americans who say the law applies to him. As Clausewitz wrote about war, “The aggressor is always peace-loving . . . he would prefer to take over our country unopposed.” To the extent there’s a violent threat from a subset of Trump supporters, it derives from his quest for power and attacks on constitutional order, not from the legal response.
Of course, Republicans could nominate someone in 2024 who isn’t in legal jeopardy and didn’t call for the “termination” of the Constitution. But Trump sees winning the Republican nomination and then the White House as not only ends in themselves but as his way out of legal trouble. His lawyers can stretch out the process, and supporters can argue that prosecutors are wrongly interfering in electoral politics. If Trump becomes president again, he can carry out plans to purge the government of non-loyalists, install another attorney general who acts more like Trump’s lawyer than America’s top law enforcement official, and put himself effectively above the law.
It’s important to remember that the biggest outburst of Trumpist violence arose from him losing re-election and lying about it. That suggests that the 2024 election and its aftermath present the highest risks. If there’s violence, it will likely be because national power is on the line, and Trump’s followers are riled up by lies, grievances, and conspiracy theories, not because Trump faces legal accountability for his lawbreaking.