Prosecute Trump — it will lower the heated political temperature

Trump is clearly running scared. He knows he loses support when the facts get out

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published August 30, 2022 1:07PM (EDT)

Donald Trump (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post/Getty Images)
Donald Trump (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post/Getty Images)

As shown by his efforts to steal the 2020 election, once he's all out of lies and deflections, Donald Trump turns to blatant threats of violence.

The January 6 committee carefully laid it out. Trump called on his insurrectionist mob to attack the Capitol after every effort to steal the election through the courts and state legislatures fell apart. The use of terroristic violence didn't work on that day, but, over a year and a half later, we can see Trump hasn't abandoned the hope that it might work with the criminal investigation into why he stole state secrets and refused to give them back when caught. This time, Trump is deploying his typical strategies of nuisance lawsuits and favor-trading to evade justice.

Appealing to a judge he appointed, Trump is trying to gum up the works by demanding a "special master" to adjudicate the question of whether he gets to hang on to classified documents he illegally took from the government and refused to give back, triggering a raid by the FBI to retrieve them. It's a tactic that relies less on any plain reading of the law and more on Trump's usual tactics of delaying justice until he figures out a way to escape its grasp entirely. 

Trump is leveraging the fears of another January 6 — or worse — in hopes that it will intimidate law enforcement into backing down.

But, in a sign that he — and his ragtag team made up of the only lawyers left who will represent him — isn't feeling super hot about his legal case, Trump has already turned towards prepping his army of well-armed burnouts to threaten violence if the feds don't back down.

Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Trump's most thoroughly owned Republican senator, went on TV to make the threat, declaring, "there'll be riots in the streets" if Trump is prosecuted. In this, he was just imitating Trump's usual mob-style method of making threats by pretending they're "predictions" instead of the obvious call to arms they actually are. Trump, of course, immediately endorsed the threat by posting the video on his likely soon-to-be-bankrupt Truth Social network. He even embedded the threat in a court motion by reiterating a threat made earlier this month to Attorney General Merrick Garland: "The heat is building up. The pressure is building up."

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Trump has also been turning up the temperature generally by returning to his claims that President Joe Biden should be ousted. His latest Truth Social demand is that he be illegally installed in the White House. Using some irrelevant right-wing conspiracy theory noise about Hunter Biden as a pretext, Trump demanded that someone "declare the 2020 Election irreparably compromised and have a new Election, immediately!" He then reposted a bunch of QAnon and anti-vaccination conspiracy theories, a signal to his most unhinged supporters that he'd like them to feel activated right about now. 

Trump's gambit is about two things: Fundraising (always) and whipping his supporters into a violent rage. It all pushes in the same direction: Trump is leveraging the fears of another January 6 — or worse — in hopes that it will intimidate law enforcement into backing down and letting him commit crimes, even possible espionage, in peace. 

No one should be intimidated. On the contrary, this is all the more reason for the DOJ to go forward and prosecute Trump for his crimes. Not just because prosecuting Trump is the right thing to do. Not just because, as Jamelle Bouie of the New York Times points out, history shows that surrendering to the kind of white supremacist violence Trump is threatening tends to only encourage more domestic terrorism. But also because recent history gives us good reason to believe that actually holding Trump accountable tends to turn down the heat.

Over the weekend, one thing became evident, which is that the more facts we get about Trump's behavior, the less appetite Republicans have for validating the bug-eyed conspiracy theories he promotes. If the federal government wants to disable Trump's ability to summon violent mobs, the single best tool they have is to prosecute him and start getting a coherent, fact-based narrative about Trump's criminality out there. 

As Heather "Digby" Parton wrote, "the Sunday news shows suddenly had trouble finding Republicans" to defend Trump after the DOJ released the affidavit underlying the warrant to search Mar-a-Lago for illegally held documents earlier this month. Despite the heavy redactions to protect witnesses and sensitive information, it was clear reading the document that Trump's behavior is both a serious national security threat and indefensible. That is why no one wanted to go on TV to argue against those facts. 

Trump simply has a harder time promulgating his bullshit when there's a countervailing narrative out there underpinned by facts. 

As shown by the January 6 insurrection, Trump's ability to harness violence depends heavily on his ability to promulgate his lies and conspiracy theories. He has a much easier time of that in an information vacuum. Prior to the release of the warrant and the affidavit, Trump took full advantage of the DOJ's closed-lip policy to fill the void with tales of being the victim of a deep state conspiracy, whipping his followers into such a rage that one of them did, in fact, die in an effort to lash out at the FBI. But, as soon as actual facts started to seep out, the various Republicans validating Trump's lies backed down and the temperatures started to drop. As we now see, Trump is escalating his rhetoric to compensate for the lack of validators, a sign that even he understands that his ability to stoke violence is lessening in the face of facts. 

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And that's with a heavily redacted affidavit! Imagine what would happen in a proper prosecution, where there would be a steady stream of facts underscoring, in public, what a massive criminal Trump is. Sure, the QAnoners would rant and rave. There may be, as with the FBI attacker, some lone wolf violence. But Trump simply has a harder time promulgating his bullshit when there's a countervailing narrative out there underpinned by facts. 

We've seen how this plays out with the January 6 committee. The committee got the facts out there and while it did little to get Republican voters to change their minds about backing Trump, it did deflate their enthusiasm. Making the usual arguments to minimize or deflect from January 6 has become more embarrassing, and fewer people are interested in doing it. Republicans would like to talk about anything else, except maybe abortion

One of the most important things to keep in mind about the kind of domestic terrorism that Trump is trying to provoke is that it depends heavily on the illusion of popular support for the terrorist point of view. The January 6 insurrectionists and others like them draw on a sense, which Trump works hard to perpetuate, that they are speaking for a "silent majority" that is being suppressed by a shadowy elite. Drumming up a narrative of aggrieved righteousness is far easier when there's no counternarrative out there, especially one that's backed up both by facts and the aggressive presentation of said facts. That's why Republicans are flailing against the January 6 committee. It's why they would flail in the face of a public court case where the evidence against Trump could be presented in a well-ordered and persuasive fashion. 

This is not really about changing minds, which is hard, and often impossible, to do. It's about undermining Trump's power to control the narrative. Trump supporters, but for a small delusional minority, don't really think the man is innocent. They're just entranced by his apparently bottomless power to rewrite reality and force others, including federal law enforcement, to kowtow to his lies. They want to back someone with that kind of power because they think that they get a piece of it by being with him. But that also means, as I argued in a recent newsletter, that Trump's power is built on sand. Once his backers feel he's lost his magical ability to impose his will over reality, they will stop being so into him. They may even start looking for the exits. 

There may, if Trump is prosecuted, be some violence, especially at the hands of his most deluded followers. But honestly, it's most likely to be the impotent displays of the sort we saw in Cincinnati after a Trump supporter shot a nail gun at FBI offices before committing suicide by cop. Not great, but certainly not the sort of thing that can bring our democracy down on its own, especially if federal law enforcement refuses to be intimidated. The kind of organized, sustained violence that Trump needs to muster in order to really be a threat requires people who believe they have the wind at their backs. And that's an illusion that's much harder to create for Trump if his story has to compete with actual facts that would be brought forth in a prosecution. 

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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