Right-wing violence hasn't disappeared, it's just gone local

A gruesome murder in Pennsylvania reminds us of the dangers of movements like MAGA and QAnon on a personal level

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published February 1, 2024 6:00AM (EST)

Shot of crime scene tape put up at a scene to warn off people (Getty Images/Charday Penn)
Shot of crime scene tape put up at a scene to warn off people (Getty Images/Charday Penn)

If it wasn't for the head of his murdered father's body, a video posted on YouTube by Justin Mohn Tuesday night would be indistinguishable from much of what passes for "content" in the world of far-right social media. In the video titled "Call to Arms for American Patriots," the 33-year-old resident of suburban Pennsylvania raved about "the traitorous Biden regime" and claimed a "fifth column army of illegal immigrants infiltrates our border" and that "far left, woke mobs rampage our once prosperous cities." He repeatedly called on viewers to attack federal employees and accused his deceased father, whose head he put on display, of being a "traitor" for working for the federal government. The only thing missing from the rant was accusations that the NFL was fixing the Super Bowl for Taylor Swift and President Joe Biden, but likely only because Mohn's alleged crime was committed before that conspiracy theory had fully flowered online. 

Mohn has been arrested and charged with murdering his father and abusing the corpse. Police say he killed his father and decapitated him with a machete, putting the head in a cooking pot to show on camera. It appeared Mohn was reading from a script as he encouraged violence against government officials, police added. YouTube removed his 14-minute-long video, but not before it was viewed 5,000 times.

It's easy to recite the typical deflections from right-wing media and influencers in the wake of yet another far-right crime: They're not to blame. This is about mental health. And look over here while we spread even more conspiracy theories calling the killer a psyop and a deep state plant. 

No doubt Mohn is a deeply disturbed person, as evidenced by his repeated attempts to sue the federal government, claiming he cannot get a job due to discrimination against "an overeducated white man." (Mohn has a bachelor’s degree in agribusiness management from Penn State University.) But it's missing the point, albeit deliberately so, to say that mental health factors mean the political motivations behind violence don't matter. On the contrary, our nation's mental health crisis is one reason that the relentless drumbeat of right-wing conspiracy theories and insinuations of violence are so dangerous. The people who spread hateful and violent rhetoric, starting with Donald Trump, know full well that unstable people are listening and will take this rhetoric as an excuse to act. In many cases, the loudmouths are counting on it. 

After all, that's exactly what Trump and his lackeys did on January 6. Many, if not most, of the people who showed up that day had some kind of personal or mental health problems. Trump knows full well that a lot of his biggest fans are unwell or in crisis, which makes them vulnerable to conspiracy theories and false promises that MAGA (or QAnon) will give them community and purpose. That's also likely why Trump saw the Capitol rioters as especially disposable, as well.

Trump knows full well that a lot of his biggest fans are unwell or in crisis, which makes them vulnerable to conspiracy theories and false promises that MAGA (or QAnon) will give them community and purpose.

Soon after Timothy McVeigh bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, then-President Bill Clinton blamed "promoters of paranoia" who "spread hate" and "leave the impression that, by their very words, violence is acceptable." He didn't mention radio host Rush Limbaugh by name, but Clinton didn't have to. Limbaugh immediately feigned outrage, claiming there was "absolutely no connection between these nuts and mainstream conservatism," aligning himself with the latter. 

Limbaugh's defensiveness was understandable because, as he likely knew deep down, he was indeed partially to blame. McVeigh was a devoted fan of Limbaugh's, listening daily as the right-wing shock jock railed daily against the alleged evils of the federal government. Whatever the organic sources of McVeigh's violent desires, there is no doubt that his targets and methods were shaped by his voracious consumption of right-wing propaganda, especially Limbaugh's program. 

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Trump barely puts any effort into denying that his desire is to take adrift and angry people and persuade them, from a safe distance, to commit violence against his perceived enemies. His Truth Social website would be better named "Stochastic Terrorism," because inspiring political violence is a main purpose of it. Trump likes this method of compelling violence because he can do it from afar and pretend it was "just jokes" when his supporters commit the crimes he all but openly begs of them.

But there's typically a trade-off involved. In exchange for plausible deniability, Trump and his lieutenants relinquish control over the outcome. They hint that they would like violence, but it's up to the little guys who are going to do the violence to decide what it will look like. And often, they're lashing out in a chaotic manner close to home, instead of in strategic ways to advance the MAGA agenda. 

Consequences work to curtail domestic terrorism.

In response to his various court cases, Trump has been flagrant in his wish casting online that his followers would pull another January 6, but in order to disrupt the judicial system instead the electoral vote-counting. It hasn't happened — yet anyway — and mainly because Trump followers have been scared away from more organized violence by the over 1,000 arrests of Capitol rioters in the years since. For instance, as Tess Owen at Vice reported Monday, an attempt by MAGA activists to organize a "convoy" to fight refugees seeking political asylum on the U.S.-Mexican border has fizzled out. "The convoy’s promoters promised over 700,000 participants," she wrote, but only a few dozen showed up. 

The would-be militiamen are psyching themselves out with conspiracy theories about how the convoy is a "psyop" created by the FBI to entrap them. In truth, they just don't want to get arrested for trying to murder families of desperate migrants crossing the border and are using conspiracy theories to justify their own cold feet. This is a good thing, as it shows consequences work to curtail domestic terrorism. But the levels of violent rhetoric haven't abated at all, and in fact, have become completely unhinged as MAGA types online, including sitting members of Congress, openly fantasize about civil war. 

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All that hate and anger is going to go somewhere, and often the target is close to home.

Sen. Ted Cruz may claim he's kidding when he posts memes celebrating violence against federal officials, but as this murder shows, plenty of people on his side take it very seriously when their leaders hint that federal employees deserve death. And while this murder was an outlier in shock value, it fits a much larger national pattern of rising levels of domestic threats and terrorism, the vast majority of it coming from the right. As the Government Accountability Office reported in May, "The number of FBI domestic terrorism investigations has more than doubled since 2020, and the number of open FBI investigations specifically has more than quadrupled from 1,981 in FY 2013 to 9,049 in FY 2021." They included a graph:

A small fraction of these incidents are left-wing, but by and large, it's a right-wing phenomenon, with over two-thirds of domestic terrorism motivated by racial bigotry or anti-government sentiment. This comports with other research showing a rise in hate crimes and other violence tied to right-wing anger fueled by MAGA propaganda like election officials across the country being driven out of their jobs by right-wing threats. 

On Monday, the FBI released a report showing reported hate crimes in schools nearly doubled between 2018 and 2022, likely propelled by groups like Moms for Liberty making public schools the battlegrounds for right-wing lies about race, gender, and sexual identity. There hasn't been a rigorous study yet, but it's also clear that schools have seen a dramatic increase in threats, as well, often having to evacuate after bomb threats. In Oklahoma, Republicans signaled approval for school violence by hiring Chaya Raichik as a board member to the state's library council. Raichik is behind the infamous "Libs of TikTok" account that offers up a steady feed of photos and names of ordinary people, often educators. The result is invariably that those people and their employers get targeted with violent threats. 

Often these stories only get reported on locally, which obscures the extent of the problem in the national press. Mohn's alleged crime is grisly enough to be getting national attention, but that also means it will likely be treated as an oddity, instead of what it is: part of a larger pattern of growing right-wing violence. It's just violence that has become disorganized and diffuse, unlike a targeted (if still chaotic) strike like the Capitol insurrection. That doesn't make it less dangerous, however. It's often way more deadly, as the people acting out are close to home and have more resources — and weapons — at their disposal. We saw this in the 2022 mass shootings inspired by MAGA rhetoric at a Buffalo supermarket and a Colorado gay club. And we see it again, as a man allegedly acted out his anti-government fervor in the most intimate way possible, on a family member while shielded by the walls of their home. 

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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