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The role of violent threats in Trump’s GOP reign, according to Republicans

Then-congressional candidate Peter Meijer (R) speaks at a campaign rally in Grand Rapids, Mich., on Oct. 14, 2020.

Tim Alberta is out with his latest must-read this week — a profile of freshman Rep. Peter Meijer (R-Mich.). Meijer joined Congress just days before the Capitol insurrection and almost immediately jeopardized his political career by supporting Donald Trump’s impeachment.

It’s a must-read, but a tough read. That’s because it describes an exceedingly ugly situation: one in which lawmakers are disregarding private principle in their votes and often doing so out of literal fear. Not only does Meijer describe members who advocated for invoking the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office later voting against impeachment, but he cites fears of physical violence directly impacting such votes:

On the House floor [on Jan. 6], moments before the vote, Meijer approached a member who appeared on the verge of a breakdown. He asked his new colleague if he was okay. The member responded that he was not; that no matter his belief in the legitimacy of the election, he could no longer vote to certify the results, because he feared for his family’s safety. “Remember, this wasn’t a hypothetical. You were casting that vote after seeing with your own two eyes what some of these people are capable of,” Meijer says. “If they’re willing to come after you inside the U.S. Capitol, what will they do when you’re at home with your kids?”
At one point, Meijer described to me the psychological forces at work in his party, the reasons so many Republicans have refused to confront the tragedy of January 6 and the nature of the ongoing threat. Some people are motivated by raw power, he said. Others have acted out of partisan spite, or ignorance, or warped perceptions of truth and lies. But the chief explanation, he said, is fear. People are afraid for their safety. They are afraid for their careers. Above all, they are afraid of fighting a losing battle in an empty foxhole.

Meijer’s comments build upon what he told Reason shortly after the Capitol riot on the same certification votes.

Meijer, though, is hardly the first to describe things this way. In fact, he’s merely the latest in a long line to cite how much fear of violence — violence which became very non-hypothetical on Jan. 6 — is an animating principle in Trump’s hold on the GOP and the decisions people make.

The role of physical threats in Trump’s domination of the GOP

Below are some others who have raised this issue.

Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (R-Ohio)

The retiring Ohio lawmaker insisted that threats weren’t why he announced his retirement after voting for impeachment, but he also indicated to the New York Times’s Jonathan Martin that they have weighed on him greatly:

[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.

Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.)

A third impeachment supporter who has gone on to head up the Trump resistance within the GOP (and has lost her GOP leadership position as a result), Cheney has described a similar situation.

“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.”

Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) warned Republicans against obstructing the Jan. 6 select committee investigation during its opening hearing on July 27. (Video: Reuters)

Pennsylvania GOP leader: ‘I’d get my house bombed tonight’

In an interview with the New York Times in December, the Republican majority leader of the Pennsylvania state Senate, Kim Ward, was perhaps the bluntest of all:

Asked if she would have signed it [a letter urging the state’s congressional delegation to reject President Biden’s win], she indicated that the Republican base expected party leaders to back up Mr. Trump’s claims — or to face its wrath.
“If I would say to you, ‘I don’t want to do it,’” she said about signing the letter, “I’d get my house bombed tonight.”

Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo.)

A week after the insurrection, Crow said some of the Republicans who confided in him broke down over their dilemma.

“The majority of them are paralyzed with fear,” Crow said on “Meet the Press.” “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.”

This is, of course, a Democrat. But his version matches up with Meijer, Cheney and others.

Anonymous GOP members

A week after the Capitol riot, anonymous GOP lawmakers pointed to the threat of violence impacting both impeachment votes and decisions about whether to remain in Congress at all, according to The Hill’s Juliegrace Brufke:

“Yea — I think a lot of people are making political decisions here,” one member said when asked if threats of violence affected how members of the conference will vote.
A second GOP lawmaker said they believe the threats could lead to an influx in retirement announcements, with some weighing whether remaining in Congress is worth the risk.
“Without a doubt [it’s a factor]. Watch for a large number of members to resign early or not run again after this term,” the member said.

It’s not clear who these lawmakers were, and there’s a chance they overlap with the others mentioned here. But Meijer was already on the record by this point.

‘Trump’s made them think this is the Alamo’

One anonymous GOP member of Congress told Politico that those who voted against rejecting the election results in Congress were soon confronted by reality — and the threat of violence that accompanied it.

“Both parties have extremists,” the lawmaker said. “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.”

The Trump allies’ own version of this

While these lawmakers have described specific instances in which lawmakers might well have voted or acted out of fear of violence, some Republican allies of Trump have also pointed in this general direction, albeit more gently. They’ve effectively argued that voting to impeach Trump would lead to more violence — suggesting it was a reason not to impeach.

During the impeachment debate, Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.) said: “I really do believe that you pushing this is going to further divide our country, further the unrest, and possibly incite more violence.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) echoed the point, saying, that supporting Trump’s impeachment “under these circumstances will do great damage to the institutions of government and could invite further violence at a time the president is calling for calm.”

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) on Jan. 7 said he opposes invoking the 25th Amendment and blamed President Trump’s legal team for spreading disinformation. (Video: The Washington Post)

It’s to be expected that a lawmaker might worry about the societal impact of a divisive impeachment — particularly an impeachment that they themselves might oppose on principled grounds. A less-charitable reading would be that they were arguing for considering a repeat of what was then a demonstrated threat of violence as a factor in any repercussions. One could certainly argue that this would reward those who resorted to violence in the first place.