Indictment watch, Week 2: A panel of experts on what gruesome damage Trump will wreak next

Did Trump have a "very successful week" or is he "very worried"? Our panel agrees on this: It's a "dangerous time"

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published March 27, 2023 6:00AM (EDT)

Former US President Donald Trump speaks to supporters during Trump's President Day event at the Hilton Palm Beach Airport in West Palm Beach, Florida, on February 20, 2023. (GIORGIO VIERA/AFP via Getty Images)
Former US President Donald Trump speaks to supporters during Trump's President Day event at the Hilton Palm Beach Airport in West Palm Beach, Florida, on February 20, 2023. (GIORGIO VIERA/AFP via Getty Images)

Donald Trump potentially faces multiple serious legal charges that could — at least in theory and however unlikely this seems — ending up sending him to prison.

Last week, Trump himself spread the rumor that he would be indicted by the Manhattan district attorney, Alvin Bragg, over alleged violations of campaign finance and other laws in connection with apparent hush-money payments he made to the adult-film performer Stormy Daniels in 2016.

As the proverbial walls were supposedly closing in, Trump, responded on his Truth Social platform with threats of violence and public mayhem, included direct threats against Bragg. 

Isn't it terrible that D.A. [Alvin] Bragg refuses to do the right thing and "call it a day?" He would rather indict an innocent man and create years of hatred, chaos, and turmoil, than give him his well deserved "freedom." The whole Country sees what is going on, and they're not going to take it anymore. They've had enough! There was no Error made, No Misdemeanor, No Crime and, above all, NO CASE. They spied on my campaign, Rigged the Election, falsely Impeached, cheated and lied. They are HUMAN SCUM!

In an early-morning Truth Social screed on Friday, Trump escalated his threats against Bragg and other law enforcement officials, literally threatening "death and destruction":

What kind of person can charge another person, in this case a former President of the United States, who got more votes than any sitting President in history, and leading candidate (by far!) for the Republican Party nomination, with a Crime, when it is known by all that NO Crime has been committed, & also known that potential death & destruction in such a false charge could be catastrophic for our Country? Why & who would do such a thing? Only a degenerate psychopath that truely [sic] hates the USA!

At least some of Trump's followers appear willing to respond to his prompts, as they did on a grand scale on Jan. 6, 2021. On Friday, Bragg reportedly received an envelope containing white powder and a note reading, "Alvin I am going to kill you!" Law enforcement officials have said the powder was not poisonous. 

As usual, Trump's threats are amplified by antisemitic and racist invective. Once again, he is surrendering to his violent urges and his profound narcissism; mental health experts have warned for years that Trump is likely a sociopath.

On Saturday, Donald Trump summoned a spectacle of violent and hateful rhetoric to end the week holding a rally in Waco, Texas, location of the ill-fated law enforcement raid on the Branch Davidian compound in April of 1993 that ultimately left more than 80 people dead.

The timing and location of Saturday's rally was no a coincidence: Waco has become holy ground for right-wing extremists and the larger white right, which makes it an almost perfect location for Trump to encourage more fascistic violence and mayhem.

In an effort to better understand this tense and unpredictable period as we await Trump's supposedly imminent indictment, his escalating threats of violence, and what may happen next, I asked a range of experts for their insights into America's continuing democracy crisis.

Jennifer Mercieca, professor of communication at Texas A&M, and author of "Demagogue for President: The Rhetorical Genius of Donald Trump."

Donald Trump has had a very successful week controlling the nation's media agenda: We've all been talking about him and his possible indictment. That success won't change whether or not he is indicted, however. As is typical for him when he is in a difficult situation, Trump used ad baculum (threats of force or intimidation) to change the subject of debate from "Is there probable cause that Trump is guilty of a crime?" to "Will Trump's supporters use violence against the government if he is indicted for a crime?"

Trump is "very good at controlling the public sphere and he is willing to do so through violence if he thinks it will give him an advantage."

The first question is answered simply by gathering facts and consulting the law. The second question throws everyone into confusion and chaos. It becomes a question of emotion, not fact. He threatens those who would hold him accountable, daring them to risk their safety. That's why he's a dangerous demagogue. He's very good at controlling the public sphere and he is willing to do so through violence if he thinks it will give him an advantage. A dangerous demagogue is an unaccountable leader, and Trump will do anything to avoid accountability.

Colin Clarke, an expert on domestic and transnational terrorism and international security, is director of policy and research at the Soufan Group. 

With Trump, it's just more of the same. He commits legal and ethical violations and then complains about being held accountable. He tries to raise these grievances to the highest level within his broader support base, knowing full well that someone may take his words as a signal to commit acts of violence. He cares about himself first and foremost, and not about the American people or maintaining law and order. It's a sneak preview of how he would behave if he were re-elected.

The only certainty is that if Trump is involved, there will be drama and the stakes are high. Trump seems intent on burning down the system if he feels like he won't be re-elected, essentially using his followers, the most hardcore MAGA folks, as political pawns, and totally unconcerned about the consequences if he whips them into a frenzy. Again, this is par for the course for him, and we should prepare for the worst.

I think the potential for violence is real. Any time you have hardcore supporters of an individual or ideology, there is a small percentage that will be willing to go beyond the pale. We've seen it time and time again, especially when grievances form the backbone of the protest.

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

This is a dangerous time right now for the United States. I've always said that Trump out of power could be more dangerous in some ways than when he was in the White House. His recent racist attacks on Alvin Bragg are carefully calibrated to inspire the most deranged MAGA followers to violent behavior. His outrageously false statements about America "going to hell" are designed to evoke religious imagery and imply that Bragg and other prosecutors looking to uphold law and order are actually the servants of Satan. Trump has further promoted the religious fanaticism angle by claiming Bragg is controlled by George Soros, which feeds into an entire lore of antisemitic conspiracies that have been created around Soros, a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust.

"His outrageously false statements about America 'going to hell' are designed to evoke religious imagery and imply that Alvin Bragg and other prosecutors looking to uphold law and order are actually the servants of Satan."

Although it may seem that Trump's social media rants are entirely the product of a crazy person, they are tightly constructed to pack many layers of extremist conspiracy theories into a short statement. And then there's the kicker: After comparing Bragg's tame investigation of a low-level felony to the Nazi and Soviet secret police, Trump tells his followers that "our country is being destroyed, as they tell us to be peaceful." This is a direct incitement to violence.

Jared Yates Sexton is a journalist and author of the new book "The Midnight Kingdom: A History of Power, Paranoia, and the Coming Crisis."

It goes without saying that Donald Trump, a career criminal, deserves to be held accountable for his crimes. All of them. And it would be an incredible step forward if that were to happen. But we also have to understand that the problem does not begin or end with him. Simply watching Trump's ability to signal to his base and sycophants the need for violence, and then, in return, watching institutions recognize the inherent danger of doing their jobs because of this, brings home the fact that something has been brewing in this country and has been stoked by Trump and his billionaire backers for years. This will not end here. Period. To believe it will is only going to make it increasingly likely that this situation will get worse and increasingly dangerous.

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Steven Beschloss is a journalist and author of several books, including "The Gunman and His Mother."

I have no expectation that a Trump indictment and arrest will shift the commitment of Trump's cult. Yet while his increasingly unhinged rants and efforts to incite violence likely won't lead to significant protests among his followers — there was little reaction to his latest demand to "Take our country back!" — it will exacerbate the potential for more stochastic terrorism. But I also believe America can never begin to move on from this sordid era of criminality, corrosion of democracy and trashing of the rule of law until Trump is held criminally accountable. Indictment and prosecution on the variety of possible charges not only represent the assertion of justice, they can turn the tide against an increasingly demoralized public doubting that justice will ever include Trump.

Rachel Bitecofer is a political analyst and election forecaster.   

It's clear to me that for the first time ever Trump is feeling legally pressured and frankly, I think his completely made-up "arrest on Tuesday" was a trial balloon to test his ability to summon a mob. If so, it's a test that failed and might explain why the ensuing week has proliferated with things like demanding the firing of all the investigators. The problem Trump faces in provoking violence is that the people most likely to answer to call are currently sitting in the federal pen. With the Department of Justice announcing there may be as many as 1,000 additional arrests pending for Capitol rioters, I assume another core group is too afraid to test their luck. Much more likely is that Trump will end up provoking violent "lone wolf" acts of violence. This is, of course, terrible and anti-American, but I have long argued that it is precisely because Trump and elected Republicans are willing to risk it by intentionally lying to their base that accountability must happen. If we give in to mob threats and allow that to disrupt the rule of law, America is in big trouble.

"I think his completely made-up 'arrest on Tuesday' was a trial balloon to test his ability to summon a mob. If so, it's a test that failed."

In terms of where this is going, I have long argued that the only way to break "MAGA fever" is by indicting Trump and his Republican co-conspirators, because it is precisely in the accountability vacuum that they are able to prop up their lies and give them credibility. Court proceedings where alternative facts are not allowed to exist have proven to be very sobering for every element of MAGA that has faced it.

Barbara Walter is a professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego, and author of "How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them."

I'm actually less concerned about Trump today than I was in December 2020 when he was using Twitter to try to overturn the election. That's because his internet reach right now is so much smaller than it was back then. Trump was able to instigate Jan 6, 2021, because he had almost 90 million followers on Twitter. Today he only has 2 million active users on his own social media site. This matters a lot. Authoritarians need a bullhorn and Twitter, YouTube and Facebook are perfect propaganda machines for them. Now that Trump is reinstated he will exploit his access to these platforms and as a result American democracy and stability will suffer. The tech companies know this and are putting their profits above everything else. They are complicit. Watch as Trump moves masterfully back onto these platforms and increases societal fear, anger and hate for his own purposes.

So the bottom line is this: it's a real problem that the major social media platforms are letting Trump back on. It is bad for democracy and bad for America's social cohesion. The tragedy is that it is so preventable.

Brynn Tannehill is a journalist and author of "American Fascism: How the GOP is Subverting Democracy." 

Donald Trump is very worried. The rhetoric he is using is nearly identical to what we saw after the 2020 election.

I do not believe that it will result in violence like Jan. 6. I also don't believe that it will make him any less popular with the GOP base. I could see an indictment of Trump making him more popular with the GOP base, as it would tend to confirm their belief in a "deep state" conspiracy against him. What it will do is create paralysis within the GOP leadership. They're not all that eager to jump to his defense: Most of them know he's a toxic, narcissistic dullard. But at the same time, if he survives this (like he has everything else), he's going to reward those who were loyal, and wage a scorched-earth campaign against those who didn't sufficiently back him. The 2022 electoral track record of Republicans who went against Trump while he was president is catastrophically bad. Metaphorically, they're faced with the unpleasant decision of whether to chain themselves to a ship that appears to be sinking.

Thomas Lacaque is a historian and expert on apocalyptic religion and political violence.

Trump remains the frontrunner for the 2024 GOP nomination and so, unfortunately, everything he says and does remains newsworthy. His claim of an indictment takes advantage of the forced attention of the media and the populace to try and drum up the level of mob support and mob violence he had three years ago. It seems that he cannot summon a new Jan. 6, not with words on Truth Social — the laughable turnout in front of Trump Tower this week suggests that, at least — but the violent rhetoric should concern us anyway. Trump's speeches have moved into apocalyptic territory, meaning his own words, not just those of his entourage.

"In the same way that 'great replacement' and anti-immigrant rhetoric from the GOP echoed in the words of the El Paso shooter, I worry Trump is feeding lines to the next massacre."

The antisemitic and racist dog-whistles continue apace, but with ever-growing Henry II vibes: "Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?" Except in this case, his Truth Social posts literally call his opponent, the Black D.A. in Manhattan, a "Soros backed animal." The rhetoric of stochastic terrorism continues to grow and get more extreme as the various court cases around him head towards their conclusions. My concerns are less about the mobs he can gather, but the individuals he can tip over the edge into attacks on marginalized communities — the rhetoric ties into pre-existing attacks on vulnerable groups, making them part of his broader mythical "Enemy of Real America," and begging people to take matters into their own hands. In the same way that "great replacement" and anti-immigrant rhetoric from the GOP echoed in the words of the El Paso shooter, I worry Trump is feeding lines to the next massacre.

Mark Jacob is a journalist, media critic, and former metro editor at the Chicago Tribune.

It will be less than ideal if the New York hush-money indictment happens before the Fulton County, Georgia, election fraud indictment or the special counsel's potential charges over Jan. 6 and the classified documents theft. Trump's falsification of business records in the hush-money case, while still a crime, is the smallest of the cases. The others are huge. We heard the man pressure Georgia officials to commit election fraud. The Jan. 6 committee demonstrated that he conspired to overturn a fair election. And the classified documents details that are already public are damning.

The big problem is that it's taken so long. We're more than 800 days past Jan. 6. 2021. Some people defend Merrick Garland by saying he's following the process. But either the process is severely flawed, or Garland is. Or both. Every day that Trump isn't in prison is a day when our democracy is in greater danger.

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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Commentary Democracy Donald Trump Indictment Political Violence Trump Supporters