Donald Trump wants more political violence — the Supreme Court just handed MAGA one excuse

Fear of prosecution was holding back right-wing extremists after January 6. Now they'll feel less constrained

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published July 1, 2024 6:00AM (EDT)

Donald Trump | Pro-Trump supporters storm the U.S. Capitol following a rally with President Donald Trump on January 6, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump | Pro-Trump supporters storm the U.S. Capitol following a rally with President Donald Trump on January 6, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Donald Trump was the luckiest man alive last Thursday. President Joe Biden's abysmal debate performance overshadowed what should have been the biggest story of the night: Trump, as he did in the 2020 presidential debate, winkingly encouraged his supporters to commit political violence. Biden correctly noted during the debate that Trump has promised to pardon the over 1,200 people charged with federal crimes for the January 6 insurrection. Trump responded by calling the rioters "innocent" and saying Biden "ought to be ashamed" because his Justice Department charged them with crimes. This echoes Trump's increasingly rabid defense of the insurrectionists on the campaign trail, where he often calls them "hostages" and "political prisoners" and holds ceremonies honoring those who are imprisoned

Trump doesn't just glorify the insurrection because he is a narcissist who can never admit he's done anything wrong. It's part of a larger campaign to encourage more political violence from his supporters. He frequently uses "warnings" to threaten public officials. Using the pseudo-warning, Trump has threatened "bedlam" if he's prosecuted. He begged his followers to "go after" New York Attorney General Letitia James for prosecuting him for fraud. He posted a video fantasizing about kidnapping Biden. He threatened "death and destruction" if he was charged in the New York "hush money" case. He even had a rally in Waco, Texas around the anniversary of the Branch Davidian self-immolation, an unsubtle dog whistle to far-right militias that use that event to justify anti-government violence. 

"Many are likely ready to round this up to a total victory — and a reassurance they won't be prosecuted for future violence."

So far, however, Trump's open desire for more mob violence has not amounted to much. During his Manhattan criminal trial, which resulted in 34 felony convictions, Trump's desperation for another January 6 reached a fever pitch. He was all over social media and in front of cameras pleading with his followers to "rally" — barely code after the Capitol riot — but to no avail. There are many reasons for this, but at the top of the list was the widespread fear among right-wing radicals of going to prison, which feels a lot more real now that hundreds of their brethren went to lock-up for the insurrection.

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Every time Trump or his surrogates calls for a "rally" to intimidate public officials, conspiracy theories fly around MAGA social media, claiming it's a "set-up" by the FBI and/or "antifa." However much anyone believes this, it's obvious what they're doing: Creating a face-saving excuse not to risk prison. No matter how much Trump may laud the January 6 insurrectionists, their fate has lingered as a warning to the rest of MAGA about what's coming if they commit more violence in Trump's name. 

Or, at least that was true until Friday. In Fischer v. U.S., the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a January 6 defendant who argued that he was wrongly convicted under a law criminalizing the obstruction of an official proceeding. As Amy Howe at SCOTUSblog explained, the court ruled the law "applies only to evidence tampering, such as destruction of records or documents, in official proceedings."

The ruling led to headlines that made it sound like a big win for the January 6 rioters. Words like "strike down" and "improperly charged" featured heavily in headlines. Yes, headline writers did try to soften the blow with words like "some" and "limits scope." For those who live in the alternative reality constructed by MAGA media, however, these modifiers will likely mean little. They've been hearing for years from Trump, Republican politicians, and talking heads like Tucker Carlson that they were done dirty by the Biden Justice Department. Many are likely ready to round this up to a total victory — and a reassurance they won't be prosecuted for future violence. 

Legal eagles did swiftly explain that this decision is limited and unlikely to do much to change the fates of the 1,200+ people who have been charged with crimes from the riot. That includes Trump, whose "fake electors" scheme in his indictment appears to fall outside the ruling's narrow scope since his conspiracy was so paperwork-centric. An analysis at Just Security demonstrated that, with small tweaks to their cases, prosecutors can keep the original charges in place. Even more importantly, the legal analysts write, "only 26 of these defendants have been (or were scheduled to be) sentenced solely" under this charge. They even included a helpful pie chart. 

A relief, no doubt, to both prosecutors and people nerdy enough to pay attention to these granular legal details. The message sent to MAGA is very different. It's not exactly a group of people gifted with the patience and comprehension to understand these nuanced legal analyses. Instead, MAGA world moved to declare victory and total exoneration.

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In a vacuum, this could be viewed as inconsequential chest-thumping. But this is happening in a context where the threatening language and normalization of political violence is spreading way beyond Trump into the larger GOP. "Extremism monitors have warned for years that Trump’s incendiary rhetoric inspires real-world attacks. Assailants have invoked his name in dozens of violent episodes," the Washington Post reported last week. Just this month, the first vice chairman of the Maricopa County Republican Committee, Shelby Busch, was caught on video threatening to "lynch" election officials who correctly record ballot counts that don't favor Republicans. More candidates are echoing Trump's threats to "jail" anyone who opposes him. Some, like congressional candidate Anthony Sabatini, R-Fl., are even running paid ads with the threats. 

Last week, Attorney General Merrick Garland issued another warning about the rising threat of violence against government workers, telling the Washington Post, "Threats of violence targeting any public servant are abhorrent." The Post laid out some recent chilling examples, including a man who threatened to murder FBI agents if Trump loses in November and another who threatened to murder Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mon., and his whole family. 

All this was before the Supreme Court issued a ruling being read in many corners as a broad invalidation of charges against January 6 rioters. As we learned in the days after the riot, many — if not most — of the insurrectionists acted on the belief that people like them would never face legal consequences for political violence. That's why they filmed themselves during the insurrection and uploaded all the photographic evidence used to convict so many of them. A big part of Trump's appeal to his followers is the sense of impunity he breeds, where "criminal" is based on who you are, not what you do. A lot of MAGA is ready to believe their white skin and right-wing politics should immunize them from consequences. Regardless of what the Supreme Court's decision says, we should not be surprised if it's read by Trump's supporters as an invitation to commit more political violence. 

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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