By Robert Reich
Donald Trump has galvanized an army of vigilantes who are casting a fearsome shadow over the 2024 election. Please spread the word.
It’s impossible to know how large this potential army is, but last October, 41 percent of pro-Trump Americans agreed with the statement that “because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.” (That view was shared by 22 percent of independents and 13 percent of Democrats.)
THE DAY AFTER MAINE SECRETARY OF STATE SHENNA BELLOWS barred Trump from the primary ballot there in late December, her home was “swatted.” As Bellows explained, “That’s when someone calls in a fake emergency to evoke a strong law enforcement response to scare the target. Swatting incidents have resulted in casualties although thankfully this one did not.”
Along with the swatting, Bellows discussed “extraordinarily dehumanizing fake images” of her online:
“I know from my previous work that dehumanizing a person is the first step in paving the way for attacks and violence against them. These dehumanizing images and threatening communications directed at me and people I love are dangerous. We should be able to agree to disagree on important issues without threats and violence.”
Colorado Democratic Secretary of State Jena Griswold has also faced mounting threats since the Colorado Supreme Court in December disqualified Trump from the state’s primary ballot.
“Within three weeks of the lawsuit being filed, I received 64 death threats,” Griswold said. “I stopped counting after that. I will not be intimidated. Democracy and peace will triumph over tyranny and violence.”
Jack Smith, the special counsel in charge of two federal prosecutions of Trump, has received a number of death threats. Between April and September of last year, the Justice Department spent more than $4.4 million providing security for Smith and his team. On Christmas Day, he was swatted.
On August 4, Trump posted, “IF YOU GO AFTER ME, I’M COMING AFTER YOU!” The following day, a Texas woman left a voicemail for Judge Tanya Chutkan, the judge presiding over the case charging Trump with seeking to overturn the 2020 election, threatening that “If Trump doesn’t get elected in 2024, we are coming to kill you.”
On August 6, two days after Trump’s post, a man left a voicemail threateningthe lives of Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis and Sheriff Patrick Labat for their roles in the Georgia criminal election interference case against Trump.
Trump has also encouraged people to “go after” New York Attorney General Letitia James.
Trump is using the threat of violence to intimidate America as a whole. He recently warned of “bedlam in the country” if he’s disqualified from the ballot.
When asked recently if he would discourage his followers from violence, Trump simply refused to answer.
IN THE WEEKS BEFORE THE 2020 ELECTION, Trump operative and confidant Roger Stone can be heard on an audio recording telling Trump security agent Sal Greco: “Either [Congressman Eric] Swalwell or [Congressman Jerry] Nadler has to die before the election. They need to get the message. Let’s go find Swalwell and get this over with. I’m just not putting up with this shit anymore.”
Stone was the liaison between the Trump campaign and the Proud Boys, which, according to the Justice Department, “played a central role in setting the January 6 attack on our Capitol into motion.” The House Select Committee investigating the attack found that in the months leading up to it, Stone regularly communicated with Proud Boys members, including their leader, Enrique Tarrio.
In September, Tarrio was sentenced to 22 years in federal prison on charges related to the attack. (In July 2020, Trump issued Stone a blanket pardon.)
As of December, roughly 1,240 people have been arrested in connection with the attack. Some 170 have been convicted at trial, and 710 have pleaded guilty. So far, more than 720 have received prison sentences, ranging from a handful of days to more than 20 years.
Many have sought to defend themselves by saying they were doing what Trump asked them to do. On that fateful day, Trump told the crowd he had summoned to Washington that:
“We will never give up, we will never concede. It doesn’t happen. You don’t concede when there’s theft involved. Our country has had enough. We will not take it anymore … We will stop the steal … Republicans are constantly fighting like a boxer with his hands tied behind his back … You’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength and you have to be strong … We fight like hell. And if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.”
Afterward, the crowd stormed the Capitol.
THERE IS A DIRECT AND ALARMING CONNECTION between Trump’s political rise and and the increase in political violence and threats of such violence in America.
In 2016, the Capitol Police recorded fewer than 900 threats against members of Congress. In 2017, after Trump took office, that figure more than quadrupled, according to the Capitol Police.
The numbers continued to rise every year of the Trump presidency, peaking at 9,700 in 2021. In 2022, the first full year of Biden’s term, the numbers declined to a still-high 7,500. (The 2023 data is not yet available.)
The threats have clearly intimidated some Republican lawmakers.
Retiring Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah hired personal security for himself and his family at a cost of $5,000 a day to guard against threats on their lives after he voted to remove Trump from office for his role in the January 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.
Romney recounts (in McKay Coppins’s biography of him) that during Trump’s impeachment, a member of the Republican Senate leadership was leaning toward voting to convict Trump. But after several other senators expressed concern about their personal safety and that of their children, the senator in question voted to acquit.
Former Republican congresswoman Liz Cheney said that in that impeachment vote, “there were members who told me that they were afraid for their own security — afraid, in some instances, for their lives.” She cited how “members of Congress aren’t able to cast votes, or feel that they can’t, because of their own security.”
Just before the House vote on impeachment, Democratic Rep. Jason Crow of Colorado said he heard firsthand from Republicans that fear was holding at least two of them back. “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,” Crow said on MSNBC.
Former Rep. Peter Meijer, a Republican from Michigan, recalls one of his House colleagues voting to overturn the election results on the evening of January 6, hours after the assault: “My colleague feared for family members, and the danger the vote would put them in.” After voting to impeach Trump, Meijer himself faced so many threats that he felt the need to purchase body armor and make changes to his daily schedule.
Meijer also noted that his colleagues who voted not to certify the 2020 election “knew in their heart of hearts that they should’ve voted to certify, but some had legitimate concerns about the safety of their families. They felt that that vote would put their families in danger.”
When announcing his retirement, former Republican congressman Anthony Gonzalez cited threats to him and his family after his vote in favor of Trump’s impeachment. Gonzalez was one of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump. In September 2021, Gonzalez announced he would not seek another term.
The Republican majority leader of the Pennsylvania state Senate explained why she signed a letter backing Trump’s attempt to overturn the results in that state: “If I would say to you, ‘I don’t want to do it,’ I’d get my house bombed tonight.”
POLITICAL VIOLENCE IS AN INHERENT PART OF FASCISM. Hitler’s SA — the letters stood for Sturmabteilung or “Storm Section,” also known as the Stormtroopers or Brownshirts — were vigilantes who did the Nazis’ dirty work before the Nazis took total power.
During the German presidential elections in March and April 1932, Brownshirts assembled Alarmbereitschaften, or “emergency squads,” to intimidate voters.
On the night of the Reichstag election of July 31, 1932, Brownshirts launched a wave of violence across much of northern and eastern Germany with murders and attempted murders of local officials and communist politicians and arson attacks on local Social Democratic headquarters and the offices of liberal newspapers.
When five Brownshirts were sentenced to death for the murders, Hitler called the sentences “a most outrageous blood verdict” and publicly promised the prisoners that “from now on, your freedom is a question of honor for all of us, and to fight against the government which made possible such a verdict is our duty.”
A chilling echo of these words can be found in one of Trump’s recent speeches in Iowa, in which he claimed that his supporters had acted “peacefully and patriotically” on January 6, 2021. “Some people call them prisoners,” he said of those who were serving sentences for their violence. “I call them hostages. Release the J6 hostages, Joe [Biden]. Release them, Joe. You can do it real easy, Joe.”
As I’ve said before, America is not the Weimar Republic on the eve of 1933, and Trump is not Hitler. But it is important to understand the parallels.
That Donald Trump still has not been held accountable for encouraging the attack on the U.S. Capitol, or for provoking his followers with his blatant lie that the 2020 election was stolen, continues to galvanize an army of potentially violent Americans.
This article was published at Robert Reich’s Substack