Police direct traffic outside an entrance to former President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate, Monday, Aug. 8, 2022, in Palm Beach, Fla. Trump said in a lengthy statement that the FBI was conducting a search of his Mar-a-Lago estate and asserted that agents had broken open a safe. Credit - Terry Renna—AP Photo
Years of tensions and resentment over the perceived “witch hunt” of Donald Trump and his supporters exploded into view this week after FBI agents searched the former President’s residence at Mar-a-Lago.
From conservative pundits and lawmakers to far-right influencers, the search was cast as an existential threat to the United States, with terms like “civil war” and “tyranny” thrown around on television and online forums. Pro-Trump commentators called for mass arrests, denounced the FBI, mourned a “dark day for our republic,” and suggested that the move would result in political violence.
“This is warfare. The only rule in war is to win,” one user wrote on a popular pro-Trump forum that served as a staging ground for the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. “We need to go on offense.”
The surge in violent rhetoric drew concerns that it could inspire attacks on law enforcement, as analysts noted a wave of threats directed at FBI agents and leaders. Trump supporters picketed several of the agency’s field offices, with a larger protest planned at its Washington, D.C. headquarters on Sunday. The Florida federal judge who signed the warrant that allowed FBI agents to search Trump’s residence has been flooded with threats, with far-right messaging channels publishing his address and spreading anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.
But former law enforcement officials and analysts of political violence warn that this may be only a preview of the backlash that could erupt if the various investigations into Trump, who is stoking speculation about a 2024 presidential run, progress further. Trump is facing a range of investigations: the Mar-a-Lago search was reportedly related to his alleged mishandling of classified documents, a House committee is investigating the Jan. 6 attack, a federal grand jury investigating efforts to overturn the 2020 election has subpoenaed senior Trump officials, and there are several state-level investigations also probing 2020 election matters, as well as a legal battle over his tax returns.
With recent polls showing that a growing number of Americans think violence against the U.S. government can be justified, right-wing personalities amplifying the alarming rhetoric, and national security agencies warning that the upcoming midterm elections could be a flashpoint for extremist violence, this kind of language is likely to be seen as a call to arms, experts say.
“Republican politicians and media figures are playing with fire,” says Rachel Kleinfeld, a political violence analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Acceptance of violence for political ends in America is approaching the levels seen in Northern Ireland at the height of their Troubles… fanning the flames of violence through incendiary language is the worst possible thing they could be doing.”
Trump and his allies have been quick to use the outrage over the FBI search for political gain, blasting out fundraising emails and vowing to hold the Biden Administration to account. “I need every single red-blooded American Patriot to step up during this time,” read one email in Trump’s name sent by his political action committee on Wednesday, casting him as the victim of a “deep state” plot. There are indications that supporters on the more extremist fringes might take the apocalyptic rhetoric seriously, especially as some Republican leaders echo and boost the disturbing language.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene tweeted out a picture of an upside-down American flag, a symbol of distress. “This is the rogue behavior of communist countries,” the Georgia Republican said in a statement. “These are the type of things that happen in countries during civil war.” The House Judiciary GOP account tweeted, “If they can do it to a former President, imagine what they can do to you.”
The frenzied partisan response to the Mar-a-Lago search only confirms the dark picture painted by recent national security assessments. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials have been warning for months that this type of warlike rhetoric, which came to fruition on Jan. 6 and which continues to be fueled by reactions to ongoing investigations of Trump, is increasing the risk of more widespread political violence ahead of the midterm elections in November.
“It is extremely dangerous for leaders to be stoking this type of outrage,” says Lilliana Mason, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins University who analyzes polarization and political violence in America. “The people who are using [this language] either don’t care about potential violence or are just not thinking long term about the potential consequences of riling up their voters like this in a way that could potentially explode… where their voters take this as a call to actually do something terrible.”
‘At some point it’ll explode’
Trump himself quickly moved to capitalize on the FBI search, with his political action committee sending out at least eight emails in 48 hours to fundraise off the raid. The emails echoed the urgent and ominous tone of his statements leading up to the Jan. 6 riot. “These are dark times for our Nation,” read the subject line of an email sent Wednesday morning by Trump’s Save America PAC.
Trump also cast the FBI search as an attack on all of his supporters: “It’s important that you know that it wasn’t just my home that was violated – it was the home of every patriotic American.” This particular message was picked up widely by right-wing media and pro-Trump influencers. On his primetime show on Tuesday, Fox host and Trump adviser Sean Hannity called it “a dark day for our republic.”
“Make no mistake, if you are associated with Donald Trump in any way, you better cross all your I’s and dot all your T’s,” Hannity warned, “because they’re coming for you with the full force of the federal government.”
Republican lawmakers and candidates, right-wing activists, and former Trump administration officials seemed to echo the rhetoric of the more militant groups that led the charge in the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, like the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys. These groups view themselves as “the last line of defense against tyranny,” and cast the investigations into Trump as the precursors to a larger war.
“This is one of the darkest days in American history: the day our Government, originally created by the people, turned against us,” Kari Lake, a Trump-backed candidate for Arizona governor who won the Republican primary last week, said in a statement. “If we accept it, America is dead… We will not accept it.”
The New York Young Republican Club issued a statement calling for mass arrests of those involved in the search and suggested legal processes should be suspended “to secure our Republic from the insidious monsters that have wrenched it from the American People’s control.” Monica Crowley, a former public affairs official for the Treasury Department during in the Trump Administration, tweeted, “This is it. This is the hill to die on.”
Far-right activist Laura Loomer, who is running for Congress in Florida, wrote on Telegram, “The FBI just put a target on the back of every single Trump supporter in America by illegally raiding Mar-a-Lago.”
On Thursday, a man wearing body armor and carrying an AR-15 rifle tried to break into an FBI office in Cincinnati, firing a nail gun at law enforcement before fleeing the scene. It wasn’t immediately clear if that incident was related to the Mar-a-Lago search. But the attempted attack shows that the aggressive condemnation of FBI “tyranny” in this fraught environment can find an audience willing to act. “The divide between violent rhetoric online and real-world violence is closing,” says Brian Murphy, a former head of the DHS intelligence branch who is now at Logically, a tech firm that helps governments and businesses counter disinformation.
“The fact that the FBI is publicly identified as the target of attacks is significant,” Murphy says. “When this kind of rhetoric is also being shared by public officials, it gives a sense of normalcy to the language, and adds fuel to the fire.”
In posts on pro-Trump online forums, users have already threatened to take matters into their own hands. Users said the FBI search felt “like the prelude to civil war,” posted advice on preparing weapons and supplies, and noted that a fighting force “wouldn’t have to be very big to completely overwhelm” the U.S. government. Another poster responded: “Encouraging reminder: over 300 cops and feds stood frozen in fear versus one guy with one rifle in Uvalde,” referring to the shooter who killed 19 students and two teachers at a Texas elementary school in May.
There has already been an uptick in death threats against U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland, FBI Director Chris Wray, and FBI agents, according to law enforcement sources cited by Fox News. Wray on Wednesday condemned the “deplorable and dangerous” threats against FBI agents. “Violence against law enforcement is not the answer, no matter who you’re upset with,” he said.
This comes as recent polls have shown a rising acceptance of political violence among Americans. About one in three Americans say they believe violence against the government can at times be justified, with more acceptance on the right: 40% of Republicans versus 23% of Democrats, according to a January Washington Post-University of Maryland poll. According to another study by researchers at the University of California-Davis Violence Prevention Research Program and the California Violence Research Center released last month, more than half of Americans expect that a civil war will erupt in the U.S. sometime “in the next few years.”
Recent data shared with TIME by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), a nonprofit that tracks political violence and demonstrations, showed a significant uptick in armed protestors at recent political demonstrations, increasing the likelihood of violence. National security agencies have tracked similar trends. “As the United States enters mid-term election season this year, we assess that calls for violence by domestic violent extremists directed at democratic institutions, political candidates, party offices, election events, and election workers will likely increase,” DHS warned in a June terror bulletin. Now, the FBI’s search of Mar-a-Lago has added another possible data point to national security analysts’ warnings.
“As a scholar I feel like we’re sort of at the precipice,” says Mason, “where at some point it’ll explode and then we won’t be able to stop it.”