The FBI’s astonishing search of former President Trump’s Florida residence this week sparked a backlash on the right, fueling concern among experts about the growing risk of political violence.
The response among Trump supporters has ranged from scathing criticism of Justice Department tactics to outright inflammatory rhetoric, with Trump himself comparing the search of his home to the Nixon-era robbery of the Watergate complex.
Some of Trump’s staunchest supporters have described this week’s legal development as reflecting a country in the throes of civil war, and in isolated cases some far-right extremists have called for mobilization in response to what has been described as an act of tyranny by lawless federal agents.
Although the FBI’s search was based on a warrant approved by a federal judge, that hasn’t stopped Republicans from claiming the investigation stemmed from a desire to harm President Biden’s chief rival rather than a potentially criminal conduct related to Trump.
“The GOP’s choice to turn an investigation into the mishandling of classified documents into a cause celebre is dangerous, especially given Trump’s history of calling on private violence, mobs and militias for support.” said Rachel Kleinfeld, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “A democracy cannot allow anyone to be above the law.”
It’s perhaps unsurprising that a criminal investigation linked to Trump, the de facto leader of the Republican Party and a possible 2024 contender, is drawing an impassioned response. At the same time, even the most provocative political speech, short of incitement to violence, enjoys broad First Amendment protections.
But the outrage over the FBI’s search of Trump’s home comes at a particularly tense time in American politics, as the share of supporters who believe violence is sometimes justified to achieve political goals has risen dramatically. According to researcher Nathan Kalmoe, about one in five supporters say their own party’s violence is at least somewhat justified in advancing their goals.
“More partisan violence seems likely in the future, especially in response to particularly tense times like the one Trump has escalated here,” said Kalmoe, a professor at Louisiana State University who has tracked growing support for political violence. .
Immediately after the FBI raid at Mar-a-Lago, a swift reaction erupted from a chorus of voices on the right.
Experts said a specific, concerted plan for real-world action has not emerged, but warned officials should closely monitor the tense vitriol online.
A prominent alt-right figure, Jack Posobiec, posted a series of inflammatory messages on Telegram this week, including one with more than 62,000 views that “the Federal Security State has declared war on Donald J Trump and his supporters”.
According to Alyssa Kann, a research associate at the Digital Forensic Research Lab, some of Posobiec’s posts were posted on national extremist channels, where users also talk about taking up arms, mobilizing and targeting the FBI.
Incendiary stations were not confined to marginal sites. Posobiec, who has 1.8 million Twitter followers, tweeted Wednesday that “Our government has been taken over by a class of deranged eunuchs. It’s up to us to move them and dismantle their corrupt device.
Steven Crowder, a conservative commentator with 1.9 million Twitter followers, tweeted Monday night “Tomorrow is war. Sleep well.”
Twitter took no action on these posts or the accounts. A company spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
The violent rhetoric is also spilling over to alternative social media sites, such as Gab, Parler, Getter, which offer little to no content moderation policies and appeal to right-wing audiences — particularly users banned from mainstream sites.
Collectively, the posts that have emerged online, across all platforms, highlight a “nice little shopping list of far-right narratives,” said Jared Holt, senior research director at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue ( ISD).
“It’s like a big fire hose of incendiary content that’s kind of fired back into the news in these spaces,” he said.
Even as the rhetoric has intensified, the distance between the political fringe and the political mainstream has shortened.
According to Kann, incendiary rhetoric that was once confined to fringe sites and far-right figures has been adopted even by politicians with large followings on mainstream platforms like Twitter and Facebook, a dynamic that is “emboldening” far-right influencers. right to be “even more violent”, she said.
“It also embeds that kind of violent rhetoric into the everyday person, which is really scary to think about,” Kann said.
Tweets by far-right, outspoken Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) add to the chorus of the right, the political firebrand calling for ‘defunding’ the FBI, calling the raid ‘tyrannical’ and likening the situation to action in a “civil war”.
Shannon Hiller, executive director of Princeton’s nonpartisan Bridging Divides initiative, which seeks to track and mitigate political violence, said US politics was in a “sensitive moment”, one that called on leaders to appease the tensions, not to aggravate them.
She pointed to the governors. Larry Hogan of Maryland and Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas as examples of Republican leaders who, though critical of the DOJ’s lack of transparency, had voiced their opinions without further inflaming political discourse, unlike some of their GOP colleagues.
“I think other GOP leaders who wink at extremist rhetoric are playing with fire,” she said. “We know from other research that leaders calling for calm and rejecting violence have a positive effect on reducing risk, which is what we should be asking all our leaders now.”
Trump, for his part, continued to use his megaphone to raise the temperature. On Wednesday, the former president suggested, without evidence, that federal agents planted evidence on his property, again describing himself as the victim of an obscure “raid.”
Legal experts have refuted Trump’s description of the FBI operation and pointed to the stakes in the investigation – as well as the backlash.
“Even though a judge has issued the search warrant for Trump’s home, which requires discovery of probable cause that a crime has been committed and evidence would be found at the scene, Trump and his supporters are moving forward. offensive and engage in impassioned rhetoric that The DOJ has somehow mistreated Trump,” said University of Michigan law professor Barbara McQuade, who spent seven years as a federal prosecutor under President Barack. Obama: “It’s amazing to me how many people are willing to take the bait.”
“I think the risk of civil unrest is very real, but the DOJ can’t let that fear stop them from enforcing the law,” she added, calling the Jan. 6 attack a wake-up call “that sobering “not to underestimate” the threat of political violence by those who support Donald Trump.
Experts have noted a key difference between online postings before the Jan. 6 Capitol riot and the fallout from the FBI’s search for Mar-a-Lago. While the build-up to the January 6 attack saw the emergence of a specific plan, the messages circulating online this week do not have the same concerted connection to a specific time and place.
At least not yet, said ISD’s Holt, who added that the security situation would continue to be closely monitored.
“We’re starting to follow some calls to protest, we’ve seen a few circulating, but nothing is really centralized at this point,” he said. “There have been at least a few instances where this has prompted extremists to call for protests or calls for mobilization. We’ll keep an eye on that and see how it evolves.