The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Simmering threat of violence comes to fore with search of Trump property

Calls from right for militant action in response to FBI raid span mainstream and extremist circles

Police outside Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla. (Wilfredo Lee/AP)
7 min

For months, right-wing agitators with millions of followers have peddled the idea that a moment was coming soon when violence would become necessary — a patriotic duty — to save the republic.

With the FBI search Monday of Donald Trump’s compound in Florida, that moment is now, according to enraged commentators’ all-caps, exclamation-pointed screeds urging supporters of the former president to take up arms. Within hours of the search at Mar-a-Lago, a chorus of Republican lawmakers, conservative talk-show hosts, anti-government provocateurs and pro-Trump conspiracy theorists began issuing explicit or thinly veiled calls for violence.

“Today is war. That is all you will get on today’s show,” right-wing podcaster Steven Crowder announced Tuesday to his nearly 2 million followers on Twitter, referring to the program that goes to his YouTube audience of 5.6 million.

Extremist organizers have tried to hold on to the momentum they built in recent years by finding big-tent causes disparate factions could rally around, such as opposition to pandemic restrictions, “Stop the Steal” election denial, or an imagined socialist “indoctrination” of schoolchildren. With each iteration, analysts say, the networks have grown more sophisticated and more violent, as evidenced by the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021.

The FBI’s search at Mar-a-Lago for classified documents is now presented as a tipping point, an existential threat to the United States that true patriots must thwart.

The FBI searched former president Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club on Aug. 8 as part of an investigation into whether presidential documents were mishandled. (Video: Blair Guild/The Washington Post)

FBI searches Trump safe at Mar-a-Lago for possible classified documents

Extremism researcher Caroline Orr Bueno compiled a collage of dozens of screenshots of tweets calling for violence in response to the search, or “raid” in the parlance of Trump supporters. “I already bought my ammo,” one person boasted in the sampling. “Civil war! Pick up arms, people!” ordered another.

An immediate concern is the safety of the federal judge in Florida who approved the search warrant. Once his name made its way to right-wing forums, threats and conspiracy theories soon followed. Online pro-Trump groups spread his contact information and, as of Tuesday afternoon, the judge’s official page was no longer accessible on the court’s website.

Orr Bueno said it was ominous to see “a disturbing number of elected Republicans and influential right-wing figures joining in on the ‘civil war’ rhetoric.”

This whole situation is red meat for their base. They use events like this to feed into this fantasy they’ve co-created with their supporters, and defusing the situation would require stepping out of that alternate reality,” said Orr Bueno, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Maryland who studies disinformation. “They’re not going to do that, particularly with 2024 right around the corner.”

Since the search Monday, Telegram channels popular with right-wing militants have been awash with vows to “lock and load” for civil war against what they deem a tyrannical federal government subverting the Constitution and “persecuting” a patriotic leader. NBC News identified one user who referenced civil war on TheDonald, a Reddit-like forum for Trump supporters, as Tyler Welsh Slaeker, who is awaiting sentencing for his role in storming the Capitol.

In mainstream GOP quarters, extremism trackers say, the nudges toward violence are more subtle, with statements delegitimizing the government as a “police state” or a “banana republic” that must be opposed, starting with the dismantling of federal agencies. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) called the search “the weaponization of federal agencies against the Regime’s political opponents.”

At 9:42 p.m. on Monday, Charlie Kirk, leader of the student conservative group Turning Point USA, which has held its annual gala at Mar-a-Lago, tweeted: “The people who did this want to stoke civil conflict. Don’t fall for it.” Not even an hour later, Kirk had changed his tune, adding another tweet at 10:39 p.m. that read, “They will not stop until they fear a cost for their abuse. That is how it works.” The comments below the post made clear that both his supporters and detractors interpreted the message as a call for militant action.

Far-right Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) tweeted “DEFUND THE FBI!!” She added an image of an upside-down U.S. flag, which many on the right have embraced as a symbol of the nation in distress.

“If this line of thought continues, I suspect we’ll see more far-right chatter about federal government buildings or people being legitimate targets,” warned Casey Cox, a political scientist at Texas A&M University who studies domestic terrorism.

The Mar-a-Lago probe put a spotlight on violent and dehumanizing political speech, but it has been lurking in the background for months. Examples in the past year include Jarome Bell, a Republican running for Congress in Virginia, who tweeted a call to put to death anyone convicted of voter fraud: “Arrest all involved. Try all involved. Convict all involved. Execute all involved.” Wendy Rogers, a far-right state senator in Arizona, told a white nationalist convention in Florida that “we need to build more gallows” to handle “traitors.”

In remarks in Nashville, Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) said “the militant left wing in our country has become the enemy within.” He added: “You may think that’s pretty dramatic, right, calling them the ‘enemy within’? Yes, I am.”

National Archives had to retrieve Trump White House records from Mar-a-Lago

If the goal is to normalize vigilante violence as a political response, studies show that the tactic seems to be working.

A recent Washington Post-University of Maryland poll found that about 1 in 3 Americans say they believe violence against the government can at times be justified, the largest share to feel that way in more than two decades. Other studies similarly have found a growing tolerance of violent ideologies that historically were confined to fringe elements.

Cox, of Texas A&M, has tracked how these ideas were laundered into the mainstream right over decades, creating an “increasing undertone of violence that has been simmering from the early ’90s.” By 2008, coinciding with the right-wing backlash to Barack Obama’s presidency, the messaging was becoming more overt.

“Certainly by 2008 or ’09 we do see more pronounced violence. We see more campaign ads either on TV or online featuring ‘targets.’ You have Ted Cruz cooking bacon on the barrel of a gun. And I don’t think it’s a big leap to go from that to Eric Greitens and his ‘RINO-hunting,’ ” Cox said, referring to a U.S. Senate candidate’s recent campaign ad promoting vigilante violence against people described as “Republicans in name only.”

Cox said aggressive gerrymandering has created a more extreme electorate, forcing politicians to veer further right to stay in office. Violent rhetoric that once was considered disqualifying is now politics as usual, a shift that began before Trump but was hastened under his presidency. As shown by the Jan. 6 riot investigation, Cox said, veiled calls for violence in political speech move quickly from more mainstream outlets such as Fox News to far-right extremist forums.

“By the time you get through some of that, you can really see a lot of the sheen coming off, where ‘We’re going to have a wild rally’ becomes, ‘Bring weapons, we’re going to storm the Capitol,’ ” Cox said.

Extremism analysts said that’s what they fear is happening now, with a burst of inflammatory rhetoric this week telling millions of Republicans that they should abandon trust in the FBI, the electoral system, schools — virtually all functions of government.

Holley Hansen, an assistant professor at Oklahoma State University who researches political violence and conflict mediation, cited a description of democracy as “governance through conflict,” a system that encourages vigorous debate but with mechanisms to resolve disagreements peacefully. The problem, Hansen said, is that the 2020 election denial was a catalyst in the militant movement’s long game to undermine democratic institutions and seize power by force.

“If you can’t trust the institutions that are designed to peacefully resolve disputes and you begin to see the other side as an enemy,” Hansen said, “the desire to act — and the need to act — really becomes more easily justified.”