Last week, an “enemies” list of state and federal officials who rejected Trump’s baseless election conspiracy theories floated up from the dark corners of the Web, with home addresses listed and red targets over their photos, the latest in a string of threats to public officials.
The list falsely accused swing-state governors, voting systems executives and the former top U.S. cybersecurity official responsible for securing November’s presidential election of “changing votes and working against the President” in a treasonous attempt to “overthrow our democracy.” The names from the list shared on social media included the hashtags #remembertheirfaces and #NoQuarterForTraitors.
Over the weekend, demonstrations by Trump supporters in D.C.; Olympia, Wash.; and elsewhere turned violent, with four people stabbed in the nation’s capital and one person shot in Olympia. These kinds of conflicts, coupled with increasingly personal attacks on public officials, are raising fears of worse to come.
“If blood is spilled, it is on the hands of the president,” an attorney for Christopher Krebs said in a statement Wednesday. Krebs, the former top cybersecurity official, is suing the Trump campaign and one of its lawyers working to overturn the election results for defamation, after the president fired him and the lawyer suggested that Krebs should be executed.
“Trump and U.S. senators have refused to condemn these death threats,” said Jordan Fuchs, the deputy secretary of state in Georgia, after the “enemies” list surfaced online.
Neither the White House nor the Trump campaign responded to requests for comment Friday. The lawyer has said his comments about Krebs were made in jest. Asked about the list, the FBI said it was “aware of the matter” but declined further comment.
As electors plan to meet at the Michigan Capitol on Monday, state Senate and House offices will be closed because of “credible threats of violence,” according to a news release issued Sunday night from the office of Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R).
Gabriel Sterling, a Republican voting official in Georgia who was also named on the list, described mounting threats to election workers at a news conference Thursday.
“We have people stalking outside of our elections offices in Cobb County,” Sterling said. “We’ve had a warehouse manager, he was simply taking trash out to the dumpster, and he had somebody follow him with a camera telling him he’s going to prison.”
Targeting officials’ private lives is not a new protest tactic, social movement scholars say. But the coarsening of public discourse ushered in with the election of Trump, a president who revels in personal attacks, and the easy access and anonymity of social media helped take things to another level. Intense political polarization, combined with heightened anxieties during the economic and health crisis of the pandemic, have also turned public servants into villains, experts and officials said.
Throughout the pandemic and the contested election, right-wing pressure to deny the election results and public health guidance on masks and social distancing has become more personal — and dangerous. Experts on extremism say that the country could be headed to a dark place as the inauguration and a new administration near, with the possibility of armed conflict.
“What we’re seeing is an escalation, so that instead of people calling each other nasty names and cursing each other out on Twitter or Parler, instead they’re doing it in person while holding weapons, ” said Dana R. Fisher, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland and the author of the book “American Resistance.” The country is at risk of serious armed confrontation in the days to come, she said.
'An eerie turn'
Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University at San Bernardino, said his analysts began noticing an uptick in threats against government officials last year, probably inspired by Trump’s outspoken criticism of those he disagrees with. The aggression has worsened during the pandemic.
“The direction of the threats and intimidation against state and local officials took an eerie turn in the last couple of years and accelerated during the pandemic because aggrieved people are interacting with their government at the local level — in public health and elections,” Levin said. “And those officials are the very ones labeled as legitimate targets for aggressions on cable news, social media and particularly by the president.”
Levin said hate crimes rose to some of the highest levels in a decade after Trump said of a 2017 demonstration by white nationalists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville that there were “very fine people, on both sides.”
Then, in April, came Trump’s call to “LIBERATE MICHIGAN,” which inspired hundreds of “Liberate” pages on Facebook that reached millions. In early October, state and federal officials announced that they had foiled a plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D). Authorities charged 13 people who they said were involved in plans that included overthrowing the government and igniting a civil war.
Tensions in Michigan — one of the most polarized states in the country — have reached a boiling point in recent days. State Rep. Cynthia Johnson (D), a Black legislator from Detroit, revealed that numerous threats of violence — including that she should be lynched — had been made against her. She responded with a warning of her own.
“You Trumpers. Be careful,” Johnson said in a Facebook video that is no longer visible. “Walk lightly. We ain’t playing with you. Enough of the shenanigans. Enough is enough.
“And for those of you who are soldiers, you know how to do it. Do it right. Be in order. Make them pay. I love y’all.”
In the same video, Johnson also called on her supporters to “hit ’em in their pocketbooks,” the Detroit Free Press reported, and thanked them for “doing things right and in order.”
Republican leaders in Lansing accused Johnson of fomenting violence and stripped the lawmaker of her committee assignments. Republicans are expected to consider further disciplinary action, including expulsion, when the legislature reconvenes Tuesday, the day after presidential electors formally meet to cast their ballots in Lansing and other state capitals.
The controversy over Johnson followed an incident in which armed protesters gathered at the Detroit home of Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson (D) on a recent Saturday night as she finished stringing holiday lights and prepared to watch “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” with her 4-year-old son. Echoing Trump’s unfounded claims, protesters said she was ignoring widespread voter fraud and chanted “Stop the steal!”
Michigan Democratic lawmakers had warned that the ongoing fraud claims were leading to a dark and dangerous place.
“Throughout this hearing, my colleagues continued to speak in circles about ‘getting to the bottom of this.’ But we’re already at the bottom, and there’s nothing down here,” state Rep. Darrin Camilleri (D) said. “Down here at the bottom of all this, it’s just a dark, empty place.”
Attacks from all sides
These increasingly personal attacks have been embraced by the right and the left, Levin, the expert on extremism, said, citing Black Lives Matter protesters who targeted former Los Angeles County district attorney Jackie Lacey, who is Black, for declining to charge police officers in some shootings.
In D.C., activists affiliated with the Sunrise Movement and the Black Youth Project have increasingly protested outside the homes of D.C. Council members. Tensions flared earlier this year when Sunrise activists gathered late at night outside the home of Council member Anita Bonds (D-At Large) to condemn her approach to housing and support for a business-friendly council candidate. The protests drew fierce criticism over the optics of young White activists demonstrating on the lawn of a Black grandmother. Bonds likened their tactics to those used by the Ku Klux Klan to terrorize African Americans.
“I protested many times in my life span and I do understand it and how it is used, but my issue was coming to my house at late hours of the night and early morning,” Bonds said in October.
Edward Maguire, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at Arizona State University, said state and local governments can place reasonable “time, place and manner” restrictions on First Amendment rights such as freedom of assembly. No state allows trespassing on private property, he said, but other rules governing demonstrations around homes can vary.
“Police need to make sure they are on solid legal ground when responding to these types of protests since the premature use of dispersal orders, arrests, or force could constitute a civil rights violation,” he said in an email.
Fisher, the University of Maryland professor, said that tensions exacerbated by conflict over the elections and the surging public health crisis of the pandemic could boil over in January as President-elect Joe Biden takes office. Red states where residents refuse to accept the election results are some of the same places resisting pandemic guidance such as wearing masks and limiting social gatherings.
“The confrontation is going to start in these red areas where you have a critical mass of people who are refusing to follow the rule of law, even if it’s for their own good and to keep people from dying,” Fisher said. “If people are willing to do that, what’s to keep them from taking up arms against an outcome of an election they’ve decided — reading in their echo chamber — is not correct? That’s the problem with ‘alternative facts.’ ”
In Montana, a handful of protesters have gathered outside the home of Matt Kelley, head of the Gallatin City-County Health Department, since Thanksgiving. Demonstrators showed up with a live turkey on the holiday.
In Idaho last week, members of the four-county Central District Health board had expected fierce opposition to the coronavirus restrictions they were set to vote on, which would mandate masks and limit gatherings to fewer than 10 people. One official said he received more than a thousand angry emails to his personal account in a single day.
Then, the night of the vote, the outrage came to board members’ front doors.
Physician Ted Epperly had just entered the Zoom board meeting Tuesday when the clanging began outside his house in a suburb of Boise. He said about 15 people were outside banging pots and pans and using strobe lights. They hurled insults, calling him a “loser,” a “force of darkness” and an evil person stealing their liberties.
He remembers trying to surreptitiously peek through the curtains, unsure what the protesters would do if they spotted him. “Can you imagine that?” he said. “Being . . . cautious about looking out my own window at the street?”
Twice, he said, someone came up to pound on the door — if it happened a third time, he and his wife were set to call the police.
“I’ve never in my life seen anything like that in terms of personal protest, me as an individual and especially at my home,” he said. “I mean, that’s just beyond the pale.”
Ada County Commissioner Diana Lachiondo was tuning in from her office at the courthouse when her 12-year-old son called in tears about the banging outside their house, asking her to please come home. Maskless protesters there were yelling, blasting air horns and playing audio clips from “Scarface,” the violent 1980s movie about a drug lord. At least one was armed.
“I’m going to go home and make sure he’s okay,” she told others on the health board call before she disconnected, her heart in her throat.
Citing the protesters, police and the mayor of Boise moved to end the meeting less than 15 minutes after it began. Demonstrators cheered.
Ammon Bundy, an anti-government figure who founded the People’s Rights network behind the protests, told The Washington Post in an interview that the public has a right to hold officials accountable. “They should completely expect us to go to their homes and . . . we’ll do much more than that if they continue to infringe upon us,” said Bundy, a vocal opponent of mask-wearing.
Asked to explain what “much more” might entail, Bundy suggested physically blocking the enforcement of coronavirus rules at businesses. He also raised the possibility of “people’s grand juries” to examine alleged violations of the Constitution. Those plotting to kidnap Whitmer earlier this year wanted to try her for “treason,” officials said.
Bundy said he thinks violence is justified only when it is self-defense. But he would not specify the penalties such a “jury” might pursue.
“Depends on what the grand jury decided,” he said.
The network’s tactics last week drew quick bipartisan condemnation, as police said they would make arrests for disturbing the peace. But some officials also fault Republican leaders for tolerating and fanning the vitriol, with Lachiondo pointing to Trump’s attacks on Whitmer.
“There is an ugliness and cruelty in our national rhetoric that is reaching a fevered pitch here at home, and that should worry us all,” Lachiondo said, expressing her frustration in a Facebook post the morning after the scrapped board meeting.
She is leaving office after being unseated by a conservative opponent last month. But Lachiondo wonders about the other mothers watching the recent events — the women who have in the past asked her about running for office.
“I’m out,” she told The Post. “I’ve got a light at the end of the tunnel here. But who is going to want to run in the future? Do you need to live in a gated community to feel like you’re safe?
“That is my concern going forward . . . what does this mean for our democracy?” she said.
Her colleague on the health board, Epperly, also sees the agitation over community health measures as part of something far-reaching and unsettling.
“I think it’s a revealer of a new America,” he said. “You know, I don’t think this just goes away. I think it’ll take a lot of healing, quite frankly, to get us back to working together as a society.
“I’m sure people will write about this for years to come,” he added. “What happened? What happened here in this country? Who are we as people?”
Knowles reported from San Jose; Gowen reported from Lawrence, Kan.; and Hamburger reported from Washington. Aaron Schaffer, Dalton Bennett, Fenit Nirappil, Ellen Nakashima, Amy Gardner and Michelle Ye Hee Lee in Washington contributed to this report.