Experts on political violence are alarmed by Trump's latest rhetoric as he faces a possible indictment.
They warn that Trump's words could trigger riots or assassinations.
Trump has mocked calls for peace and warned of "death and destruction" if he's charged.
"RADICAL LEFT LUNATICS." "Degenerate psychopath." "THIS IS THE GESTAPO."
That's just a sampling of the latest rhetorical attacks from former President Donald Trump as he wages a war of words against a New York grand jury investigation connected to a $130,000 hush-money payment to the adult film actress Stormy Daniels. He has viciously attacked figures like Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg and mocked calls for peaceful protests — leading extremism experts to warn of the potential for political violence.
"Trump is doing what he has always done. He walks to the line of openly calling for violence and stops just before making overt directives," Kurt Braddock, an American University professor who studies far-right extremism and the ways in which communication and propaganda contribute to political violence, told Insider.
"In many ways, the implications are the same. His supporters who are looking for an excuse to turn to violence will see this as his implicit approval," Braddock added.
If there is violence as a result of Trump's words, the former president will "hide under a blanket of plausible deniability, saying that he never ordered anyone to become violent," Braddock said.
Trump's words could delegitimize the justice system in the eyes of many of his followers, leading them to view it as a politicized instrument being unfairly wielded against their leader — a warped worldview with the capacity to push a small but dangerous group of people into pursuing their own brand of justice. Though political violence experts are not especially concerned that the US is at risk of seeing a broader reaction or event akin to the January 6 attack on the US Capitol, they believe the chances of individual acts of violence are rising.
Trump is "actively stoking political violence" with his social media posts, Brian Klaas, a political scientist at University College London and expert on democracy and political violence, said in a tweet on Thursday.
"Someone is going to get killed," Klaas added, referring to Trump as a "serious threat to American democracy and security."
Trump scoffs at being 'peaceful'
As Trump faces a possible indictment by a Manhattan grand jury, he's followed a familiar playbook and taken to social media to portray himself as a victim of an unjust system. The former president has done this numerous times in the past, perhaps most notably in relation to the 2020 election he lost. Trump's rhetoric on the election ultimately helped catalyze the fatal riot on January 6, 2021, which saw him become the only president in US history to be impeached a second time.
The former president predicted over the weekend — erroneously, it turns out — that he would be arrested this week. In recent days he has urged his supporters to "protest" and "take our nation back," a call to action that bears a striking resemblance to Trump's push for a "wild" and "big protest" against the certification of his electoral defeat on January 6.
In one of his latest posts to Truth Social, Trump's social media platform, the former president threatened "death and destruction" if he's indicted.
—Jonathan Lemire (@JonLemire) March 24, 2023
Trump on Thursday baselessly compared the US legal system to the Gestapo (the Nazi secret police) and authoritarian countries like Russia and China. No former US president has ever been criminally charged. But plenty of other democracies — including close US allies such as France and South Korea — have prosecuted, convicted, and jailed former leaders.
Trump also went after Bragg and said the Manhattan district attorney was "CARRYING OUT THE PLANS OF THE RADICAL LEFT LUNATICS," adding, "OUR COUNTRY IS BEING DESTROYED, AS THEY TELL US TO BE PEACEFUL!"
If there is violence on the back of Trump's words, and particularly if those implicated in any such incidents mention Trump, Braddock said this would be a form of stochastic terrorism — an act of violence inspired by language that dehumanizes or vilifies the targeted group or person.
On Friday, police removed a suspicious white powder found in the mailroom of the Manhattan office building where the grand jury has been meeting; officials determined it wasn't a dangerous substance.
Trump suggested that being peaceful is "something to be scoffed at, ridiculed, or ignored," Braddock said, going on to say that the former president's recent social media posts are in many ways even more suggestive than the infamous and provocative speech he delivered shortly before the violence on January 6.
During that speech, Trump called for his supporters to "show strength" and "fight like hell," though he also suggested that his backers would demonstrate at the Capitol "peacefully." Shortly thereafter, Trump's supporters sent shockwaves around the world as they violently stormed the Capitol as lawmakers met to certify President Joe Biden's election victory. A number of those arrested over the insurrection have said that Trump's words drove their behavior.
'A threat to democracy'
Trump has repeatedly shown that he's willing to "demonize — and even dehumanize — his political opponents and whole swaths of Americans," Shannon Hiller, executive director of the Bridging Divides Initiative at Princeton University, told Insider.
The former president's recent rhetoric in relation to his potential indictment is "dangerous" and poses "a threat to democracy," Hiller said, emphasizing that it "normalizes thinking of whole groups of our fellow Americans as 'the other' and not worthy of the same rights."
Though some of Trump's recent posts are reminiscent of the lead-up to the Capitol riot, Hiller suggested that there's not as much of a danger of a January 6-style event if he is indicted. "I'm currently more worried about individual incidents," Hiller said.
Trump is running for president again in 2024, and is widely viewed as the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination. Hiller expressed concern that as the 2024 GOP primary kicks off, other candidates may begin to follow Trump's lead and employ similarly threatening language. "I'd call on everyone to continue speaking out against this type of rhetoric," Hiller said.
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