It has been widely accepted for a long time that Donald Trump rules the Republican Party by fear. What’s been less examined — but should be — is how much it’s not just fear of political peril.

Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (R-Ohio) on Thursday night became the latest high-profile Trump critic to head for the exits rather than attempt to win a Republican primary in the Trump era. Gonzalez, who is in just his second term, will retire after having been one of 10 House Republicans to vote to impeach Trump.

This is a pattern: Republicans willing to stand up to Trump in very public and career-jeopardizing ways, but not being prepared to press their case to actual voters in the next election. And as the New York Times’s Jonathan Martin notes (and our own Philip Bump expands upon), it has the impact of probably only increasing Trump’s dominance over the party, by reducing the ranks of his critics in the GOP caucus.

But in the same Times story, Gonzalez suggests it’s not quite as simple as risking losing at the ballot box. He also cites the threats that have become too commonplace since his vote to impeach:

[Gonzalez] made clear that the strain had only grown worse since his impeachment vote, after which he was deluged with threats and feared for the safety of his wife and children.
Mr. Gonzalez said that quality-of-life issues had been paramount in his decision. He recounted an “eye-opening” moment this year: when he and his family were greeted at the Cleveland airport by two uniformed police officers, part of extra security precautions taken after the impeachment vote.
“That’s one of those moments where you say, ‘Is this really what I want for my family when they travel, to have my wife and kids escorted through the airport?’” he said.

Gonzalez insisted that the threats were not why he is retiring. But the fact that he brought it up at all suggests this has weighed upon him, as it would anyone. And for Gonzalez to admit it’s a factor would be to let those threatening violence and doing the intimidating win.

And it’s worth taking stock of just how many lawmakers are telling some version of that story — that this very personal intimidation might have impacted the political decisions of would-be Trump critics.

“The majority of them are paralyzed with fear,” Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo.) said a week after the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. “I had a lot of conversations with my Republican colleagues last night, and a couple of them broke down in tears — saying that they are afraid for their lives if they vote for this impeachment.”

Such comments from Democrats will understandably be regarded with some suspicion, in that Crow has an interest in making Trump look bad. But his version of events is backed up by other Republicans — including those who have been targeted by the threats.

“I had colleagues who, when it came time to recognize reality and vote to certify Arizona and Pennsylvania in the electoral college, they knew in their heart of hearts that they should’ve voted to certify, but some had legitimate concerns about the safety of their families,” Rep. Peter Meijer (R-Mich.), another impeachment-supporting Republican, told Reason magazine in a piece published shortly after Jan. 6. “They felt that that vote would put their families in danger.”

Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.), another impeachment-supporting Republican, who was cast out of GOP leadership for her supposed apostasy, said much the same thing about the impeachment vote.

“If you look at the vote to impeach, for example, there were members who told me that they were afraid for their own security — afraid, in some instances, for their lives,” she told CNN in May. “And that tells you something about where we are as a country, that members of Congress aren’t able to cast votes, or feel that they can’t, because of their own security.”

We’ve seen numerous others allege similar and unusual threats against them, including a trio of Republican officials in Georgia who stood up to Trump’s baseless claims of voter fraud. Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s wife shared some of the ugly text messages they received, and elections official Gabriel Sterling said flatly to Trump, “Stop inspiring people to commit potential acts of violence.”

Elections officials described similar threats in the lead-up to the 2020 election, when Trump and his allies were already baselessly warning about rampant fraud caused by the expansion of mail balloting during the coronavirus pandemic. And it dates back to the 2016 campaign, when the likes of anti-Trump Republicans, Republican National Convention delegates, and even then-Fox News host Megyn Kelly described the escalating threats they faced from Trump backers.

Kelly said her family had been protected by armed security for more than a year by that point, dating back to when she opened the first big GOP debate by pressing Trump on his derisive comments about women.

She, too, cited the impact such threats have on one’s decision-making.

“It was hard to hold the line night after night after night and not cover him too harshly, because my life was being threatened, and not cover him too gently, because I wanted him to stop the nonsense or to please him,” Kelly said in December 2016.

It’s at this point that Trump backers will note — validly — that threats are hardly the exclusive domain of Trump backers. Yes, those Trump backers resorted to unprecedented mass political violence during the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, but we’ve also had someone open fire on Republicans at a congressional baseball practice in the relatively recent past. A man was jailed just last week for threatening the life of Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.), but in that case the man was upset about Trump’s false stolen-election claims and singled out Harris, who supported Trump’s challenge to the results.

Threats are a deeply unfortunate part of being a politician, and of being a journalist covering politicians. Getting a handle on the quantity of the problem on one side or another is especially difficult given how much these things are handled behind closed doors, and how much the threatened might not feel comfortable talking about it, for obvious reasons. After all, if you are cowed by such threats — however consciously — you’re not going to proactively come forward and talk about the threats that cowed you. Even talking about the threats could invite further ones, because people will believe you’re hurting their side by exposing such behavior.

But there is evidence that this problem has blossomed in the Trump era. Trump is without modern compare when it comes to suggestively nodding to violence by his supporters and even expressly encouraging it in some cases. Even allies have, before joining the Trump team, nodded to the consequences of that approach — however deliberate it is.

“I know what that rhetoric can do,” Trump’s future United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley told the Associated Press n 2016. She specifically cited a massacre by a white supremacist at a church in South Carolina, adding: “I saw it happen.”

An ABC News review as of May 2020 found “at least 54 criminal cases where Trump was invoked in direct connection with violent acts, threats of violence or allegations of assault.” And a study from the Prosecution Project in 2019 found that about three-quarters of those charged with threatening lawmakers come from the right, dating from 1990.

An anonymous GOP lawmaker summed it up to Politico in January: “Both parties have extremists. There’s a difference in our crazy people and their crazy people. Our crazy people have an excessive amount of arms. They have gun safes. They have grenades. They believe in the Second Amendment. They come here, and Trump’s made them think this is the Alamo.”

Whatever the case — and acknowledging that we often don’t hear about threats, and the threatened often don’t acknowledge their true impact — it’s become evident that this threatening behavior has registered significantly with Trump’s critics. And even if you give Trump the benefit of the doubt and acknowledge that extremists do extreme things, his rhetoric on this kind of thing invites questions about just how much he has paved the way for it.

We might never know how much impact it truly has had in Trump’s effort to keep the troops in line and weed out the apostates such as Gonzalez, but it’s perhaps one of the biggest and most undersold stories of our time.