Former President Donald Trump was indicted and arraigned this week on multiple criminal charges arising from his obstruction of an FBI investigation into classified documents he took from the White House, kept in boxes in a bathroom and ballroom at his Mar-a-Lago estate, and showed to people without security clearances. Reactions from Trump and his allies included smears against the prosecutor, claims that Trump is the victim of political persecution, and threats of violence and civil war.
Demonstrating both his narcissism and lack of historical knowledge, Trump called his indictment “the most evil and heinous abuse of power in the history of our country” in a Tuesday email. “We are living through the darkest hours of American history,” he declared in another email the same day.
The indictment reveals damning evidence that Trump knew he was in the wrong. He even hinted that his lawyers should simply make some of the documents disappear before the FBI searched his home. But in spite of that evidence, Trump’s rhetoric was echoed by his loyalists inside and outside the government, including Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy, who called it “unconscionable” and a “dark day for the United States of America.”
Trump’s claims that he is the victim of political persecution are as familiar as his lies about the 2020 election being stolen, which incited some of his supporters to attack the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. It is clear that his rhetoric can still incite followers to threaten violence. “We need to start killing those traitorous fuckstains,” read a post on the pro-Trump message board The Donald.
Warfare rhetoric was not confined to anonymous online posts. Rep. Andy Biggs, an Arizona Republican, tweeted, “We have now reached a war phase. Eye for an eye.” Rep. Clay Higgins tweeted, “President Trump said he has ‘been summoned to appear at the Federal Courthouse in Miami on Tuesday, at 3 PM.’” Deploying language of military combat, Higgins added, “This is a perimeter probe from the oppressors. Hold. rPOTUS has this. Buckle up. 1/50K know your bridges. Rock steady calm. That is all.”
“The republic has fallen,” wrote the Rutherford Institute’s John Whitehead in an online commentary. “The Deep State’s plot to take over America has succeeded.” Whitehead warned that “we are being pushed and prodded towards a civil war.”
As Vice noted, extremism researcher Caroline Orr cautioned about the potential for violent rhetoric to lead to actual violence, writing, “The involvement of members of Congress, prominent political figures, and Trump himself in promoting, inciting, and even hinting at violence is a risk factor for acts of political violence.”
Right-wing pundits also amplified Trump’s claims that the criminal indictment is “election interference” designed to stop his election in 2024, with Tucker Carlson telling his followers that “they’re trying to take out Trump before you can vote for him.” Pundit Mark Levin was on message, saying “they want to take control of this country, they want one-party rule.”
Religious-right activist Gary Bauer told readers of his email newsletter that Trump’s arraignment is “an obvious effort by the neo-Marxist left to put him in jail for life or force him to drop out of the presidential race in exchange for a deal to stop the persecution,” which Bauer said signals “the end of the constitutional Republic we love.”
Bauer also used Trump’s indictment as an opportunity to stoke the grievance of religious-right activists at what the movement’s leaders have portrayed as anti-Christian persecution: “As we have repeatedly noted, the intolerant neo-Marxist left, which despises free speech and religious liberty, is increasingly criminalizing normal values and punishing faith.” And Bauer wasn’t done:
If the prosecution goes forward by the Justice Department run by the incumbent president, many Americans will conclude that our constitutional Republic is over, and that their suspicions of rigged elections were correct. The left and its Deep State allies will have plunged America into Third World status.
Trump-adoring pastor Shane Vaughn railed against the indictment of Trump in a screaming two-hour sermon this week, declaring that Trump had been “anointed” and “appointed” by God. Vaughn has since told his followers, “The presidency is above the law.”
Trump claimed in a Thursday email that he had raised $7 million since the indictment. He isn’t the only one raising money on his legal troubles. House Majority Leader Steve Scalise asked right-wing activists to sign a petition “demanding Trump’s freedom from the corrupt Witch Hunt” and asked for money to help House Republicans stand up to “the Radical Left’s corrupt Trump investigation.” House GOP Caucus Chair Elise Stafanik is also raising money, supposedly for an official Trump defense fund, but HuffPo’s Jennifer Bendery read the fine print and noted that most of the money will go to Stefanik’s campaign.
Republican officials’ objections to Trump’s indictment reveal a dangerous unwillingness to hold Trump accountable, which undermines the principle that no person is above the law. We saw that same unwillingness in the overwhelming GOP vote against impeachment after Jan. 6. Trump and his MAGA allies are now demanding that all GOP presidential candidates pledge to pardon him, which would signal a surrender to his demands that personal loyalty trump adherence to the Constitution and rule of law, a hallmark of authoritarian leaders.