Trump, Alex Jones and Steve Bannon: GOP goons follow a familiar playbook when accountability knocks

Threats and bluster are meant to intimidate authorities and juries into backing down — but no one should be afraid

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published August 9, 2022 1:11PM (EDT)

Donald Trump (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Donald Trump (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

There's a critical factor to keep in mind regarding the FBI raid of Mar-a-Lago, the resort hotel Donald Trump resides in Florida: Getting a federal warrant is not child's play.

As former federal prosecutor and current defense attorney Ken White noted in a lengthy Twitter thread following the raid, the "feds do not seek search warrants lightly." As White explained, such warrants generally require "probable cause to believe that the specified location has the specified evidence of a specified federal crime." This one, in particular, would have been combed over by multiple high-ranking authorities, including Attorney General Merrick Garland himself. Crucially, while we the public do not know the details of what is almost certainly one of the most careful and detailed warrants imaginable, Trump himself does, because the subject of the search is given the warrant.


In the lengthy diatribe Trump released Monday night, he failed to mention any of these details. Outside of a vague mention of his "safe," which could very well be a lie like the rest of the statement, Trump didn't utter a single syllable about the specifics of the warrant served on him. He didn't even mention specific allegations to deny them. Instead, his statement was a diarrhea stream of deflections about Watergate and Hillary Clinton, centered around a conspiracy theory that Trump is a victim of "political persecution." 

The strategy isn't subtle. Trump is trying to fill the information vacuum left by the FBI's silence with lies. He wants to fill up his followers' minds with paranoid gibberish, so that by the time actual details come out, the facts cannot penetrate their red hats. 

Reading the statement, I was struck by how much Trump is using the exact same playbook currently in use by his buddy Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist founder of Infowars. And just like Jones did, Trump is using the legal case against him to fundraise

Jones has been in court for the past couple of weeks, as a jury determined the damages he owes for defaming the parents of a child murdered in the Sandy Hook school shooting. I use the term "in court" loosely, because Jones spent most of the trial time outside of court. While the grief-stricken parents spoke to the jury about the impact of Jones' lies, he was raving to his loyal audience about how the whole trial was a "deep state" and "Democrat" conspiracy to silence him from his supposed truth-telling and other such laughable nonsense. In other words, Jones barely bothered to put up a defense in court, instead focusing almost entirely on the outside game. He riled up his base of unhinged supporters, hoping to intimidate the plaintiffs, judge, and jury into just giving up. But none of these people were particularly intimidated — if the nearly $50 million judgment Jones was handed late last week is any indication. 

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Steve Bannon, another talk show host and Trump crony, used the same playbook recently. His lawyers barely bothered to defend him against charges of refusing a congressional subpoena related to the January 6 insurrection. Instead, the strategy was focused on this outside-the-court intimidation play. Bannon regularly held press conferences that were a mix of bravado-laced threats and whining about alleged persecution. For a minute, the strategy did seem to scare some folks, but soon it became clear that Bannon had nothing but hot air to fall back on — and hot air is notoriously not the sturdiest of mattresses. 

Importantly, this outside game strategy — which is unsurprisingly being amplified and honed in real time by Fox News on Trump's behalf — should be understood as one of violence.

While Jones, Bannon, and Trump are careful not to make specific threats, the tactic relies on a larger understanding that they are speaking to an audience of armed and unhinged people who are eager to please them. Jones, in particular, upped the ante by surrounding himself with nearly a dozen "bodyguards" every time he bothered to show up at court. The hope is the people tasked with holding the criminals accountable will, out of fear for their personal safety or even just an unwillingness to deal with harassment, give up and let the criminal get away with it. 

This strategy is called "stochastic terrorism." It depends on looking strong, but in reality, it's the strategy of the weak. Bannon and Jones turned feebly towards intimidation because, as their piss-poor showing in court made clear, they have no other defense. So far, it also isn't working. Juries have not hesitated to hand down damning judgments.

Notably, this is also the same strategy Trump used on January 6 itself. 

As the House committee carefully laid out in the January 6 hearings, Trump only turned to the violent mob after every other avenue for stealing the 2020 election had been exhausted. This isn't out of any reluctance to use violence, as Trump slobbers publicly with excitement all the time at the mere thought of his supporters cracking skulls. It was because Trump knew, on some level, that resorting to violence has a bunch of political downsides. Even if it works, it makes the victory less legitimate in the public's eyes than if it had been accomplished with some legal-sounding official shenanigans like the "fake elector" scheme

In terms of stochastic terrorism being effective, January 6 is the best shot that Trump and goons like Bannon and Jones ever had. Instead of vague insinuations of violence, they offered their followers a specific time, place, and goal: Storm the Capitol on January 6 and stop then-Vice President Mike Pence from certifying Joe Biden's presidential victory, either by intimidation or just outright killing people. That still didn't work, however, because Pence and congressional leaders weren't intimidated, and while Capitol police took some heavy damage, law enforcement successfully prevented the mob from getting to its targets. 

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This time, Trump's insinuations are being heard loud and clear by his followers, as NBC News reporter Ben Collins detailed on Twitter Monday night. 

But while Trump's followers may be ready to commit acts of violence, this isn't anything like January 6, in terms of specific goals and targets. The FBI is a large and diffuse organization that is operating with bureaucratic secrecy. It's very different than a public election certification ceremony that could be interrupted by violence. Indeed, as I write this, there seems to be no evidence that the army that Steven Crowder is threatening to send to "war" has gathered anywhere. Where would they go? To FBI headquarters to destroy the evidence collected? How would they even know where to look? The elderly crowd that spent the night drinking beer outside Mar-a-Lago is a perfect symbol of the current aimlessness of this particular threat. 

RELATED: "Defund the FBI!": Republicans' pro-police rhetoric goes out the window after feds raid Trump

More troubling is the way Trump's bombast has stirred actual politicians with real power to make threats of their own, both in terms of violence and in promises of legal harassment of Garland for pursuing this case. Some of the bigger clowns in the GOP congressional caucus are screeching about how it's time to "defund" the FBI. Far-right nut and Republican state legislator Anthony Sabatini threatened that the Florida legislature will "amend our laws regarding federal agencies" and sever "all ties with DOJ immediately." 

Still, it's reassuring to remember these are not the words of serious people with facts on their side. The FBI is not going to be defunded so that one criminal ex-president can commit crimes in peace. The Department of Justice's authority does not rest on states "allowing" it to operate, or else it would have been decimated decades ago by Southern segregationists. Notably, Florida's Republican governor, Ron DeSantis was unwilling to commit to any illegal actions to keep the FBI from executing federal warrants in his state, even as he, too, blustered and whined. He may be a right-wing nut, but he isn't stupid enough to think any of these threats have real teeth. 

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Meanwhile, however, the famously dim House Minority Leader, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, openly threatened Garland with actual legal persecution if Garland did not let Trump simply get away with crimes. 

This is, of course, classic GOP projection: Claiming to be victims of political persecution in order to justify actual political persecution. Unlike the vague calls for violence, this particular threat has a tooth or two. If Republicans take the House in November, McCarthy will have the power to tie Garland up with endless nuisance hearings, where Garland will be subject to hours of being berated with lies by Republican congressmen. That is no doubt annoying but hopefully is not actually intimidating.

It's worth remembering what a sniveling coward McCarthy is. In the hours after the January 6 insurrection, McCarthy was livid with Trump for nearly getting him and other members of Congress killed. It didn't take long, however, before he was back to kissing Trump's ass and acting like Trump's henchman. The main lesson from this is that McCarthy is a spineless weasel and no one, especially not the leaders at the DOJ, should be afraid of him. 

Trump, Fox News, congressional Republicans and every other right-wing sleaze out there is doing the same thing for the same reason: Being really loud to cover up for the fact that they've got nothing. The hope is that by screaming at the top of their lungs, making threats, and otherwise being exhausting, they can somehow intimidate the legal authorities into standing down. It's the human equivalent of those frill-necked lizards that fan out their skin in order to look bigger and scarier than they actually are. But when those lizards meet a predator who is not intimidated by their act, they turn tail and run.

So no one should feel intimidated by Trump's empty belligerence.

Remember that, while Trump's acolytes will defend him no matter what, most Americans have been persuaded by facts to believe, correctly, that Trump is guilty of an attempted coup. The words "FBI raid" aren't going to make that majority any less likely to believe in Trump's guilt. Pro-democracy forces need not be intimidated, but to keep the pressure up on Garland and the DOJ to see this investigation through. Rule of law and democracy are too important to be sacrificed just because Trump and his boobs are making a bunch of loud farting noises. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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