After Mar-a-Lago: A panel of experts on the grave danger just ahead

Experts on the far right discuss this moment of national crisis: Are we being "carried slowly toward civil war"?

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published August 19, 2022 6:00AM (EDT)

Donald Trump (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Donald Trump (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Last week the FBI conducted a lawful search of Donald Trump's residence at Mar-a-Lago, his private club in Palm Beach. There they discovered highly classified and other top secret documents, which reportedly may have included information about the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Trump could face a variety of criminal charges, including violations of the Espionage Act.

Predictably, since the FBI search, Trump has been using social media and other means to encourage his followers to defend him, perhaps through violence if need be. Trump's cultists are already acting on his commands: Last week a Trump supporter who was apparently at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, attacked the FBI headquarters in Cincinnati. After a standoff, a chase and failed negotiations, he was shot dead by law enforcement.

It is abundantly clear that Donald Trump will engage in acts of revenge and retaliation against public officials and others who support the rule of law, democracy and the Constitution if he manages to regain power in 2024. He thought he was a king during his first term; now he will be a mad king, unleashed and unrestrained.

Attempting to summarize the violent threats made by Trump and his confederates is insufficient to communicate their malevolent energy or the seriousness of their intentions. Here are some recent examples of actual fundraising emails that Trump and his agents have sent to his followers:

The FBI has RAIDED Mar-a-Lago. This is political targeting at the highest level.

Remember, they were never after President Trump. They have always been after YOU, Friend, and President Trump IS JUST STANDING IN THE WAY.

The political persecution of President Donald J. Trump has been going on for years, with the now fully debunked Russia, Russia, Russia Scam, Impeachment Hoax #1, Impeachment Hoax #2, and so much more. It just never ends.

This lawlessness, political persecution and Witch Hunt must be EXPOSED and STOPPED.

Here is another, purportedly written by Donald Trump Jr.:

We truly live in a third-world Country.

What's happening to my father right now has been happening since day one.

The radical Left cannot stand that a guy named Donald Trump was able to go up against opponents like Hillary Clinton and beat her at her own game. And then he went into Washington, DC, and did a phenomenal job.

He didn't play by the rules, and he became one of the best Presidents this Country has ever had.

Now, the Democrats are showing just how threatened they are by my father. They are coming after him like never before, and we need all hands on deck to fight back.

This language is an almost explicit incitement of right-wing political violence and terrorism. Since the January 2021 coup attempt, Trump and his agents have moved away from dog whistles and stochastic terrorism to direct and obvious threats. Like a mafia boss, Donald Trump is trying to use use extortion, blackmail and other threats of violence to expand his power and escape responsibility for his crimes.

Last week, Trump even made a none-too-subtle attempt to intimidate Attorney General Merrick Garland and the Department of Justice. Here's how the New York Times reported that:

On Thursday, Attorney General Merrick B. Garland made a public statement saying he had personally authorized the decision to seek the search warrant for Mr. Trump's property, and he indicated that the Justice Department would have made such a move only after trying less invasive measures.

Shortly before Mr. Garland made the announcement, a person close to Mr. Trump reached out to a Justice Department official to pass along a message from the former president to the attorney general. Mr. Trump wanted Mr. Garland to know that he had been checking in with people around the country and found them to be enraged by the search.

The message Mr. Trump wanted conveyed, according to a person familiar with the exchange, was: "The country is on fire. What can I do to reduce the heat?"

These threats of violence are frequently amplified by Republican elected officials, the right-wing media, and various other acolytes and propagandists. Public opinion polls have also shown that a large percentage of Republican voters endorse Trump's threats, conspiracy theories and outright lies about being an "innocent victim" who is being unfairly targeted by the FBI, the Department of Justice and other agents of the "deep state." By the many millions, Trump supporters and Republicans (now effectively the same thing) support and embrace their Great Leader's lawless conduct — including the coup attempt and the lethal attack on the Capitol of Jan. 6.

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To better understand the context and significance of these escalating threats of violence and terrorism, I asked a range of experts to share their insights on America's current democracy crisis and what may happen next.

Katherine Keneally is a senior analyst at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, where she supports projects that track the intersection of disinformation, hate, extremism and political violence in the U.S.

While we observed an uptick in violent rhetoric and calls for violence online following the search warrant execution in Mar-a-Lago earlier this month, it is important to note that the threat of extremism is not new. This rhetoric reflects what we have been seeing — which is an increase in the number of people who view violence as an acceptable course of action in response to beliefs, policies and events they do not agree with. Our concern is that this rhetoric not only suggests an indifference to violence and increased interest in conducting targeted attacks, similar to what occurred at the FBI office in Ohio last week, but how this event, and future ones, are used to spread conspiracies and false narratives that seek to sow division and undermine democracy.

Additionally, extremists are using Mar-a-Lago as a catalyst for radicalization and recruitment. We see a range of extremist groups and communities spread false narratives online, including that the search warrant was a political move, that the FBI is lying about an increase in threats to the agency and that the Ohio attack was a "false flag" committed by the FBI, among others. Rather than viewing the search warrant as an indicator that all people are equal under the law, these groups are amplifying false claims that Trump supporters will be targeted next as a way to stoke fear and bolster recruitment efforts.

Stephanie Foggett is director of global communications at the Soufan Group and a research fellow at the Soufan Center.

The response to the FBI's search of Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago property exposes how much of the far right's anti-government disdain and propensity for violence has permeated the American mainstream. While there has been an important focus these past days on violent threats to law enforcement — the FBI in particular — it's important to remember that this rhetoric is not coming out of a vacuum. Much of the far right's rhetoric driving threats today has been formed over many years within a violent information ecosystem that is also consistently targeting and villainizing religious, racial and ethnic minorities, as well as women, the LGTBQ+ community, journalists and activists.

The spike in violent rhetoric and threats of violence we witnessed this week against law enforcement targets leaves me very concerned about other communities reviled by the far right. We must continue to pay attention to the full spectrum of violent and hateful narratives in this space. 

Mia Bloom is a professor of communication and Middle East studies at Georgia State University. She is the author of several books, including "Dying to Kill: The Allure of Suicide Terror." Her most recent book (with Sophia Moskalenko) is "Pastels and Pedophiles: Inside the Mind of QAnon."

Within the QAnon conspiracy theory we have multiple and overlapping trends of white supremacy and racism, including dangerous groups like the Proud Boys, Patriot Front and former law enforcement (the Three Percenters).

What worries me most is that the Mar-a-Lago raid moves people who are merely posting radical statements — "keyboard warriors" — to real-world action.

What is striking is that this legal seizure with a search warrant falls under existing theories about the "deep state" and encourages the justification of violence. We saw that in three separate instances after the raid. Worse still is the fact that Trump released private information about the FBI agents and now they and their families are being harassed and threatened.  The raid, unless the narrative eventually justifies it (although by that time, considerable damage will have been done), will provide justification for violence, and will further radicalize people who are already "aroused" — not in the sexual sense but in the psychological sense.

What worries me most is that the raid moves people who are merely posting radical statements and ideas to real-world action. This is the biggest danger because we know from our research in "Pastels and Pedophiles" that there are potentially millions of American adults who believe in the QAnon conspiracy but are unlikely to ever do anything about it ("keyboard warriors"). The right-wing media echo chamber will ramp up people already on the edge to move to real-world actions.

David Atkins is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of the Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.

Trump has been using accountability for his own likely criminal behavior as both a fundraising tool and another excuse to rile up his perpetually aggrieved and increasingly violent base of supporters. The conservative media complex has been only too happy to assist him. The result is a powder keg of explosive terrorist threats by conservatives against even the FBI, usually seen as one of the most conservative and anti-leftist institutions in the federal government.

At some level, conservatives realize they have lost the culture and the majority of the country. Many believe that Donald Trump is their only remaining hope left, and that they can still crush their domestic enemies and regain control of the country, even if it means destroying democracy itself. They have placed their loyalty to one man above the Constitution or any of America's institutions.

Matthew Sheffield is national correspondent for TYT and a former right-wing political consultant.

Despite the constantly shifting multiplicity of lies and false claims Trump has made about the fully legal search of Mar-a-Lago, one thing has remained constant in his responses: His demand that followers identify his problems with theirs. There is no possible world in which an average American would be served a search warrant for stealing classified and other types of federal documents. This false political narrative is one of many that Trump has woven over the years that parallel religious cult leaders' attempts to make themselves the embodiment of their followers' fears and desires.

Once that leap has been made, you can get people to do anything on your behalf. Trump doesn't have to give the order to firebomb the FBI. All he has to do is lie to his dupes that the FBI is coming for them next. Sure enough, he has already inspired "unprecedented" levels of threats against the FBI and several actual attempts of violence. Unfortunately, things are going to escalate much further if Trump faces real legal consequences for his actions. Prosecutors must not be intimidated by his fascist threats.

Teddy Wilson is a journalist with a decade of experience covering the Christian right and the conservative movement. Previously he was the U.S. investigations editor at openDemocracy, a research analyst at Political Research Associates and a staff reporter at Rewire News Group.

The reaction by Republican politicians and right-wing media to the FBI's raid of Mar-A-Lago has echoed and amplified the extremist rhetoric and apocalyptic narratives of the far right, and this has already lead to real world far right extremist violence and the dramatic increase in threats from far right violent extremists. In far right extremists spaces online, the FBI executing a search warrant of the former President's residence is viewed not only the unfair politically motivated persecution of Donald Trump, but as an existential threat from a tyrannical federal government.

The FBI and other federal law enforcement agencies have been viewed for decades by the far right, particularly by the militia and Patriot movements, as illegitimate and unlawful. In the wake of the FBI raid of Mar-A-Lago, the right-wing media has increasing made comparisons of FBI agents to the Gestapo or the Stasi, and there have been calls for county sheriffs to prevent federal law enforcement from executing search warrants or other investigative activities. Additionally, the far right has characterized Capitol Riot defendants as political prisoners, and portrayed Ashley Babbitt as a martyr. The rhetoric is incredibly similar to the far right in the 1990s in the wake of Ruby Ridge and the Waco Siege.

Federico Finchelstein is professor of history at the New School for Social Research and Eugene Lang College in New York. He is the author of several books, including "From Fascism to Populism in History." His most recent book is "A Brief History of Fascist Lies."

Trump never desists with his slow-motion march towards a failed form of fascism. This is a wannabe fascism that is constantly checked by his many defects as a leader as well as by legality itself. If fascism clearly destroys legality, Trump merely tries to escape from the law. This escape is by whatever means necessary: lies, manipulation, enabling, prompting his followers into violence and even domestic terrorism (as in the violent attack against the FBI). As in fascism, Trump's politics do not care about the wellbeing of their own society, and they rely on constantly demonizing others, spreading violence and disrupting legality and institutions.

In Nazi Germany, the "truth" of the leader was judicially constructed as a replacement for more rational forms of law. ... Trump conceives of himself as a supreme judge in that specific fascist sense.

His threats of violence should be taken very seriously, because dictatorship and even fascism seem to be the endgame of Trumpism. In Nazi Germany, the "truth" of the leader was judicially constructed to the full extent as a replacement for more rational forms of law. Juridical truth was equated with the transcendental nature of the leader. Hitler famously represented himself as "the supreme judge of the Nation." The result was the destruction of legality.

As I argue in my book, it is highly probable that Carl Schmitt was insincere when, in 1934, he claimed that the Führer was the embodiment of the "most authentic jurisdiction." But Schmitt, a latecomer to Nazism who had a perceptive and sympathetic take on its mythical connotations, fully understood the Nazi notion of truth when he stated that Hitler was "not subjected to justice" but rather constituted the highest form of justice.

It is clear that Trump conceives of himself as a supreme judge in that specific fascist sense, which replaces justice with the leader's corrupt and narcissistic sense of legality.

Jeff Sharlet is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and the author of several bestselling books including "The Family" and "C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy." His forthcoming book is "The Undertow: Scenes from a Slow Civil War."

It's tempting to read the daily news for signs of hope or doom — and I do, this, too, and even feel more hopeful on some fronts lately — but I think the current of Trumpism or fascism or authoritarian dissolution that I call the "undertow" remains strong. It's been building a long time. This primary defeat or that victory or this courtroom maneuver may affect who's up on the surface, but such changes mostly don't mean much to the pull beneath. We're in a season of political violence; we are allowing ourselves to be carried slowly toward civil war.

I don't think civil war is inevitable. Or even likely. But it is becoming likelier. Because of what happens in Washington, yes, but also because so many right-wingers I meet in my reporting, everyday people across the country, in "blue" states and "red," have come to desire civil war. And although I know some will insist this is impossible, I hear that desire from some on the left, too. I don't share it, but I think I get it — as one friend put it to me, it's hard to sit in suspense for so long. People want resolution. They believe wrongly that civil war will produce it. What about the first one, some ask? To which I think the truest answer is, we'll see when it's over.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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Analysis Civil War Donald Trump Fascism Fbi Jan. 6 Mar-a-lago Merrick Garland Political Violence Republicans