I would like nothing more than to be wrong about this. But the reckless response by the GOP-Fox News axis to the FBI’s search of Mar-a-Lago makes it feel as though we’re falling into the abyss.
In such a dangerous and unstable time, we need political and opinion leaders to appeal for calm. Instead, Fox News and other conservative outlets exploded with talk of “war” and “assassination,” an “attack” on the country and Trump supporters, and calls for revenge against a “corrupt” American “KGB.” Elected Republicans erupted in cries about the “weaponized politicization” done by a Democratic “Gestapo” and a “tyrannical FBI,” and about the need to “make sure these tyrants pay the price.” They called for retribution: “Destroy the FBI.” “No one is safe.” “You’re next.” “They’re coming for YOU.”
We know that violent speech, particularly when so many are already feeling desperate and on edge, leads to violent acts. We have been here before.
During the Clinton administration in the mid-1990s, far-right militia groups were proliferating over anger at the federal government’s clumsy moves against extremists at the Branch Davidian cult’s compound in Waco and in an earlier standoff in Ruby Ridge, Idaho. Conservative commentators and Republican lawmakers stoked the rage, warning “patriots” to resist a supposed attempt by the government to confiscate guns and impose a global government. They warned of government “black helicopters” and a “paramilitary style attack against Americans,” and they called for people to rise up against the “abuse of power.” In April 1995, on the second anniversary of Waco, a white nationalist detonated a truck bomb outside the federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168, many of them children.
In 2010, during the Obama administration, far-right, anti-government groups were again proliferating. Sarah Palin, the former vice-presidential nominee, issued her “Don’t Retreat, Instead — RELOAD!” edict, while prominent Republicans touted guns to fight “a tyrannical government” and told activists to be “armed and dangerous.” They warned that the country was under “attack” from a “gangster government.” A wave of threats and actual violence ensued — office windows shattered, armed demonstrators marching across from the capital — and culminated in a madman’s killing of six and grievous wounding of Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-Ariz.) at a community event.
Now, as in both of those cases, we are approaching the midterm elections of an incumbent Democratic president’s first term. Now, as in both cases, right-wing, anti-government groups are ascendant. And now it is easier for a group, or even a single mentally unstable person, to unleash mass carnage. Explosives are lighter. Inexpensive switches made on 3D printers can turn ordinary Glock handguns into fully automatic weapons capable of firing more than 15 rounds per second. The internet and encrypted communications facilitate widespread radicalization and coordination.
Monday’s search of Mar-a-Lago puts us at a perilous moment. NBC News reporter Ben Collins, who tracks pro-Trump online forums, tweeted that the posts Monday night were “as violent as I’ve seen them since before January 6th. Maybe even more so.”
Responsible media and political figures would, at the very least, counsel people to wait until all the facts about the Mar-a-Lago search are known. Instead, Republican officials encouraged hysteria. House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy accused the Justice Department of “an intolerable state of weaponized politicization.” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis claimed the “weaponization of federal agencies against the Regime’s political opponents.” Others referenced “3rd world Marxist dictatorships,” Democrats “abusing power with no recourse,” and an FBI trying “to take political enemies out.”
Meanwhile, Newsmax hosted former New York police commissioner Bernard Kerik, who claimed to be “deathly afraid” that Trump will face “assassination.”
And from Fox News: “This is the worst attack on this Republic in modern history, period,” said radio host Mark Levin. “We’re at war,” said former Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon, baselessly claiming White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain approved the search. “We need to choke down the FBI and choke down the Justice Department.”
On and on, they ranted: Fox News’s Dan Bongino said, “You do not live in a constitutional republic anymore.” Former Trump administration official Michael Caputo said, “The FBI is the KGB” after the “military-style raid.” Former Trump budget director Russ Vought wanted to “dismantle the FBI into a thousand bits.” Trump daughter-in-law Lara Trump said, “This should shake you to your core.” Host Laura Ingraham threatened that “when we get power back, it’s time to hold everyone accountable.”
These are open invitations to the violent and the unstable to take matters into their own hands.