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Trump is pushing us toward the abyss

His conspiracy theories about the FBI search have spawned a GOP assault on the legitimacy of the American state — and set the stage for violence.

Former President Donald Trump at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas, Texas, on August 6.
Brandon Bell/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

That former President Donald Trump was reportedly hiding nuclear secrets at Mar-a-Lago is shocking, even to those of us who expect the worst of Trump.

Even after the release of the warrant and property receipt on Friday afternoon, we don’t exactly know what the documents were or even if they are related to America’s nuclear arsenal or that of a foreign power. Trump, for his part, predictably slammed the report on social media, calling it a “hoax.” But if the Washington Post’s reporting is even remotely accurate, it raises troubling questions about why the former president decided to purloin the documents. It also explains why the Justice Department was willing to go to such extreme lengths to recover them.

Yet while Attorney General Merrick Garland’s logic in authorizing the search now appears sound, its consequences appear increasingly dire.

On Thursday, a man identified as Ricky Shiffer — a Trump supporter who attended the January 6, 2021, Capitol riot — attacked an FBI building in Cincinnati, Ohio, with a nail gun, ultimately dying in a confrontation with police. On Truth Social, Trump’s social media platform, Shiffer indicated that he was motivated by the FBI raid. “We must not tolerate this one,” he wrote in one message.

On Friday, Temple Beth David — a South Florida synagogue attended by the federal judge who authorized the search — was scheduled to host evening services on the beach. But a member of the synagogue on Thursday said that the Beach Shabbat event was canceled amid a deluge of antisemitic threats. The judge’s involvement in the synagogue had been publicly identified in a Tuesday Twitter post by Lenny Dykstra, a former New York Mets outfielder and convicted felon, who followed up with antisemitic comments about Beth David’s religious practices.

What we are seeing is shocking, but it’s part of an established pattern. Trump engages in some kind of egregious misbehavior, prompting official scrutiny and condemnation of his actions. He treats these actions as unjustified persecution, proof that the “deep state” is out to get him, a claim that the Republican Party and conservative press dutifully echo. His most radical supporters become even more radical, even contemplating violence.

Supporters of former President Donald Trump rally outside Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida, on August 9.
Eva Marie Uzcategui/Bloomberg via Getty Images

January 6 is, of course, the most terrible illustration of this sequence to date. As Trump’s legal problems mount, there is every reason to expect it to repeat and even escalate, given the furious rhetoric from Trump and the GOP in recent days attacking the foundational legitimacy of the American state. The consequences could be calamitous.

The Trump-GOP-extremism feedback loop

We are closer to the beginning of the Trump investigations than the end of them.

The Mar-a-Lago documents released on Friday show that Trump is under investigation for potential violations of three federal statutes, including the Espionage Act. The New York state investigation into his business practices is heating up; on Wednesday, Trump spent four hours in questioning — pleading the Fifth on every question except when he was asked to state his name. On Friday morning, the Trump Organization lost a motion to dismiss the Manhattan district attorney’s tax fraud case against it.

In Georgia, where a grand jury has been impaneled to examine potentially criminal 2020 election interference, Trump just hired a criminal defense attorney famous for representing rappers. And the Justice Department’s probe into January 6 is starting to reach the former president; 10 days ago, it was reported that his legal team sat down with Justice Department lawyers to discuss whether conversations he had while in office could be shielded from investigators.

None of these investigations is a witch hunt. In each case, there are serious reasons to believe that the president violated the law. If prosecutors chose not to even investigate Trump, that itself would be politically motivated — a tacit admission that if a political figure is popular enough, he is above the law.

But the result of prosecutors doing their job is predictable: Trump reacts by casting it as proof that he is under attack by nefarious forces. Take his reaction to the reports of the nuclear weapons documents, posted on Truth Social:

The litany of grievances, the sense that Trump has been forever persecuted by the government, the unfounded implication that the FBI was “planting information” at his house — all of it screams victimization, that Trump is the target of a vast and shadowy conspiracy pulling the FBI’s strings.

The fact that a Truth Social user had just been radicalized by such talk — posting violent threats on the site before attempting an armed breach of an FBI building — isn’t deterring Trump at all. He is, as the political scientist Julia Azari puts it, a nationalist who has no concept of a nation; a narcissist who abuses the language of patriotism without any commitment to the underlying idea that he has some responsibility to preserve order and cohesion in the polity. In fact, he does the opposite — sowing division and stoking violent distrust if it helps him.

Perhaps Trump’s talk wouldn’t be so dangerous if the rest of the GOP would work to tamp it down. Yet it’s become excruciatingly clear in the wake of his emergence as the GOP’s standard-bearer that Republicans are not taking Trump’s transgressions and troubles as opportunities to dump him, but rather to dig in, right by his side, in similarly radical terms.

Look at what leading Republicans said immediately after the news of the raid broke: how willing the party was to attack federal law enforcement, how swiftly they moved to paint the FBI as jackbooted thugs operating at the behest of a tyrannical federal government.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, the leading non-Trump prospective candidate in the 2024 GOP primary race, called it “another escalation in the weaponization of federal agencies against the Regime’s political opponents.” Florida Sen. Rick Scott, head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, described the FBI’s behavior as “3rd World country stuff.” New York Rep. Elise Stefanik, the third-ranking House Republican, called for “an immediate investigation and accountability into Joe Biden and his Administration’s weaponizing this [Justice] department against their political opponents.”

Conservative media has taken a similar line. Fox News has been leading the charge against Judge Bruce Reinhart, who authorized the FBI search warrant, on grounds that he represented clients with ties to Jeffrey Epstein over a decade ago. On Thursday night, Fox host Brian Kilmeade displayed a fake picture of Reinhart on a plane with Epstein confidante Ghislaine Maxwell. Little wonder, then, that Reinhart and his synagogue have been receiving threats.

Rep. Elise Stefanik, backed by, from left, fellow Reps. Rick Crawford, Trent Kelly, and Mike Turner, speaks at a news conference on Capitol Hill on August 12 concerning the FBI serving a search warrant at Mar-a-Lago.
Susan Walsh/AP

This behavior will not end as the investigations into Trump continue. In fact, it’s almost certain to escalate. The more desperate he is, the more aggressively he’s willing to attack the legal system and even the broader government as secret pawns of his enemies — a tactic we’ve seen before with Trump and similar far-right populists abroad, like Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu (currently on trial on corruption and bribery charges).

As it escalates, there is every chance that Trump’s supporters will become more radicalized. A recent survey from academics at UC Davis found that half of Americans agreed that “in the next several years, there will be civil war in the United States.”

This is almost certainly overstated, but the finding does point to a growing and well-founded belief that more Americans have become willing to engage in political violence. The Department of Homeland Security has thought since at least 2020 that white nationalists are now the greatest terrorist threat to the American homeland. The odds of a greater increase in far-right terrorism, especially from disgruntled Trump supporters who have been taught to see the Biden administration as part of a tyrannical “Regime,” are rising — and will continue to rise as the broader conservative movement keeps using the virulent anti-government language of the fringe right.

The United States is at a troubling crossroads. If investigators in jurisdictions around the country drop their inquiries into Trump, they are tacitly conceding that he can break any laws without consequence prior to a near-certain 2024 presidential run — an incredibly dangerous precedent. If they continue their work, they risk stoking further unrest and civil conflict, pushing an already polarized country toward an even more dangerous form of division.

Trump and his enablers have taken the country to a very dark place. And we have every reason to believe things will get darker before the dawn.

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