As many are aware, the Atlantic devoted its entire latest print issue to examining the likely fallout and consequences to this nation and its citizens if Donald Trump is provided with another opportunity to occupy the Oval Office. As explained by the Atlantic’s editor, Jeffrey Goldberg, speaking to National Public Radio (NPR), the intent was to provide a frank and honest assessment of those consequences through the eyes of some of the magazine’s most astute and knowledgeable writers—political and otherwise—so that there would be no question whether that publication had appropriately warned the American people at the outset, well before the fact of the election, thus allowing Americans to make an informed decision.
Goldberg acknowledged this in a Dec. 8 interview with NPR’s Steve Inskeep:
What we were thinking was that we have to do whatever we can do, while there’s time, to put out in plain English what we think will happen if Trump is elected again. At the very least, I want to be able to look at myself in the mirror, and I want to be able to explain to my children and my grandchildren, we tried. We tried to tell people what was coming. And we failed, but we at least tried.
Each of the Atlantic’s writers approached the assignment through their own lens, style, and expertise. But the article written by Juliette Kayyem, formerly assistant secretary for intergovernmental affairs for the Department of Homeland Security during the Obama administration, titled “The Proud Boys Love a Winner,” describes one consequence of a revived Trump presidency that for most Americans may be beyond comprehension, or at the very least beyond their comfort zones to consider: the transformation of our governmental structure into an institutionalized tool for violence and intimidation.
The ink had barely dried on last week’s opinion by the Colorado Supreme Court, holding that Donald J. Trump was disqualified under the 14th Amendment from running again for president because he’d engaged in an insurrection against the United States, when the four justices who had had signed on to the court’s decision began receiving graphic, violent threats from Trump supporters on various social media sites. Some of the justices had their email addresses, phone numbers, and business addresses posted online, alongside those threats. According to a report by the nonpartisan group Advance Democracy, obtained by NBC News, the social media posts “noted a variety of methods that could be used to kill those perceived as Trump’s enemies: hollow-point bullets, rifles, rope, bombs.”
As Ryan Reilly reports for NBC News:
“This ends when we kill these f–kers,” a user wrote on a pro-Trump forum that was used by several Jan. 6 rioters.
“Kill judges. Behead judges. Roundhouse kick a judge into the concrete,” read a post on a fringe website. “Slam dunk a judge’s baby into the trashcan.”
As Reilly noted, “The threats fit into a predictable and familiar pattern, seen time and time again after legal developments against Trump.” And in reality the underlying threat of violence to punish Trump critics and political opponents is now a routine method associated with Trump’s movement, and has been since the outset of his campaign. But the threats have never been limited to reactions to Trump’s legal setbacks. They have been directed toward anyone who is understood by Trump’s vigilante-inclined followers as working against his interests, including election workers, federal employees, and ordinary citizens—in practice, not just people perceived as presenting obstacles to Trump’s policies but also the people and groups ostensibly targeted by those policies. All have proved fair game for Trump’s terroristic-minded supporters.
Trump clearly revels in these types of threats because they feed an atmosphere of fear and menace he seeks to cultivate among his base of supporters. Yousef Odette, writing for NPR, explains that the reasons Trump’s voters gravitate to such violent invective is that they have been conditioned by Trump and right-wing media to exist in a near-constant state of defensiveness, bordering on paranoia:
“Each incident, each indictment of former President Trump, every negative development that’s related to him, every time even something happens with President Biden or the Democratic Party, where people think that the Bidens have gotten away with it, has contributed to this environment [where his supporters think] that the current government is out to get supporters of Trump,” said Katherine Keneally, who heads threat analysis and prevention at the nonprofit Institute for Strategic Dialogue-U.S., which monitors the threat landscape online.
For Trump’s supporters, any attack or criticism of Trump now implicitly equates to an attack on themselves. As Sen. Mitt Romney observed in a recent book describing (in part) what prompted his retirement, the pervasive fear of Trump’s violent supporters is one of the major reasons Republicans refused to vote to impeach him after the attacks of Jan. 6. As MSNBC’s Steve Benen, commenting on this revelation, noted, “In a healthy society with a stable political system, elected officials don’t cast votes out of fear that their families might be killed.”
There is no real dispute that Trump knows what he is doing. His rhetoric since losing the 2020 election has grown exponentially more violent, even as the most visible perpetrators inspired by that rhetoric have recieved (sometimes lengthy) prison sentences. Violence and the threat of violence to achieve his ends are now the most prominent feature to his entire political strategy, as Trump himself has acknowledged. The Republican Party that sustains him has predictably remained silent, with many Republicans (such as Fl. Gov. Ron DeSantis) mimicking Trump’s rhetoric toward groups Trump has demonized. Taking their cue from their own representatives, the overwhelming majority of ordinary Republican voters have likewise remained silent. If there have been any instances of Republican citizens (beyond the few so-called “Never Trumpers”) raising any significant objections or concerns about Trump’s violent pronouncements, those instances have been well concealed. And the reason for this is that the violence is not directed at them. And as long as that remains the dynamic, they seem to be perfectly fine with it.
So a question that the rest of Americans need to think long and hard about, assuming Trump is afforded an opportunity to once again attain the presidency, is whether they are prepared to accept the normalization of violence that will come with it. Because unlike Trump’s first term, should he be reelected, these tactics will not only be legitimized and validated in his and his associates’ eyes, but, by every indication they will be formally institutionalized throughout the government, most specifically in the federal agencies that make up the executive branch.
In her Atlantic article, Kayyam notes that Trump’s embrace of virulent nationalist, neo-Nazi rhetoric was mostly implicit during his initial administration but went into overdrive following his loss of the 2020 election and has grown exponentially since that time. However, she believes the effectiveness of such rhetoric has been checked by the multiple arrests of his followers involved in the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol, the capture and prosecution of several of the violent extremists who flocked to his banner (such as the militia members and white nationalists involved in the plot to kidnap Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer), and the indictments leveled against Trump himself and his fellow coup-plotters who attempted to engineer the overthrow of the election. As Kayyam notes, “extremism ebbs and flows” and Trump and his followers’ legal setbacks have tended to dissuade many of his most violent supporters from acting on their impulses. Up to now, that is.
As Kayyam writes:
Trump now faces both state and federal conspiracy charges for his efforts to stay in power despite losing the election. Leaders of the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers have received long prison sentences for their role in the violence of January 6. Fox News, which knowingly broadcast false statements about faulty voting machines rather than offend its pro-Trump core audience, agreed to a defamation settlement of nearly $800 million with Dominion Voting Systems. All of these proceedings have demonstrated that Trump and his supporters will be held accountable for what they do and say.
A reelected Trump, however, would effect an across-the-board reset of these institutional checks on violence. Trump has already vowed to pardon the Jan. 6 insurrectionists, many (approximately 22%) of whom already had criminal records prior to their arrest for attacking the U.S. Capitol and members of Congress. It’s reasonable to assume that more will have become further radicalized and violent having served time with like-minded individuals in prison. Assuming Trump validates their behavior by letting them loose again on the American public (and there is no reason to believe he will not), several of them, having their “cause” legitimized in their own minds, will be motivated by revenge. Of course, this doesn’t even take into account those violent Trump followers who have not been arrested but content themselves for the time being making anonymous threats against judges and election workers.
For anyone who places their trust in law enforcement to contain and protect the public from such potential violence, Kayyam reminds us Trump’s clearly outlined plans to weaponize the Justice Department and F.B.I. could overwhelm local law and judicial enforcement, assuming they were inclined to stand in the way of such an institutionalized reorientation of their priorities to begin with.
As she observes:
Trump’s followers, like Trump himself, may still be subject to state prosecution. But a president with firm control of the Justice Department, who wields a corps of supporters willing to use intimidation for political ends and who has maintained a considerable following among police, could overwhelm the ability of state institutions to uphold the law.
Trump has already signed on to a blueprint involving “wielding” his DOJ as an active weapon against his opponents, including those who would protest his actions in the same manner protests erupted against his policies following his election in 2016. The difference now is that he has a ready, visible army of right-wing vigilantes at his disposal. As Kayyam notes, it is fairly clear that what Trump intends is a sort of police-state-by-intimidation, one in which law enforcement (and perhaps the judiciary), fearful or out of sheer self-interest, looks the other way while Trump’s most thuggish supporters proceed to threaten and intimidate his opponents:
Trump’s bullying of military leaders, journalists, and judges was never merely the ranting of an attention seeker, and that behavior—backed by the credible threat of violence from radicalized supporters—will likely become even more central to his governing style. “The extremism won’t be some side group,” Erica Chenoweth, a Harvard professor who studies political violence, told me. “It won’t be like a terror group against the state. The conditions will be different. It will be embedded into state institutions, and into the orientation of the state against perceived opponents.”
Michael Flynn and Roger Stone, both of whom received pardons from Trump shortly before he left office, used members of the far-right militia Oath Keepers for “personal security.” It’s reasonable to assume that upon pardoning the likes of Stewart Rhodes, Enrique Tarrio and others involved in planning the Jan. 6 attacks that these individuals and their ilk will once more find themselves in the employ— officially or unofficially — of a second Trump administration. Trump’s plans to purge the Justice Department of anyone “disloyal” to himself will ensure that these individuals and groups are seldom (if at all) subject to federal scrutiny. Accordingly their ability to attract and recruit like-minded individuals will almost certainly increase. For those far-right Christian nationalists who don’t simply elect to remain in the shadows, a second Trump administration will mean an opportunity of a lifetime to advance their violent, racist agendas.
That isn’t alarmism, it’s simply a rational interpretation of what Kayyem means when she says that violence will be “embedded into state institutions, and into the orientation of the state against perceived opponents.” Hate groups like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers will have a friend in the administration and likely in the FBI, which will suddenly see its agenda reoriented toward investigating “liberal” groups for imaginary, concocted grievances fed to the masses by Trump’s reliable propagandists at Fox News and other right-wing media, in much the same way these organs have fed a near-constant stream of manufactured lies about Democrats and President Joe Biden. And by every indication so far, ordinary Republican voters will go right along with this systematic campaign of terror because it won’t be directed at them.
Protest would happen, however, and a second Trump regime would find its resolve put to the test almost immediately, given the sheer number of Americans who would be rightly outraged. Conservatives appear to have set their sights on imposing a regime of “soft” fascism upon the rest of the country in the manner of Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, but that hope reflects a catastrophic miscalculation of the demographic reality in this country.
Whatever illusions the right may harbor, the United States is not a small, third-class nation with a population and economic system still adjusting to its emergence from half a century of communist domination. Most Americans (at least white Americans) have no experience with a regime of state-sponsored systemized, institutional harassment and intimidation, and putting it mildly, they will not react well to it. If they find themselves targeted by institutions in the manner Trump plans, they will rebel against those institutions, in creative ways that are impossible to foresee or predict. In a nation of 331 million people (many of them who will by then likely be armed to the teeth), the reality is that Trump, should he implement even half of the dictatorial agenda he envisions, would likely find himself presiding over a country so riven with anger and division that it would be ungovernable. Such are the disadvantages of drawing up one’s grand plans from inside a hermetically sealed bubble of information.
Obviously, the best way to avoid this unpleasant future is to soundly defeat Trump at the polls in November. As Trump’s sycophantic party consolidates around him next year, the stark choice that Americans will be making should become self-evident. Barring any third-party sabotage, the fact that President Biden is polling fairly evenly with Trump at this stage actually (and contrary to much handwringing by the traditional media) bodes well for him, as long as Democrats work to find their communities and turn out their vote in mass. As the election approaches Trump’s supporters—and Trump himself—promise to become even more radicalized and noxious than they are right now. If nothing else, that fact alone should forcefully remind Americans that they don’t want to the rest of their lives determined according to the whims of degenerate Brownshirts.