The Bad and Good News About Trump’s Violent Supporters

The FBI search at Mar-a-Lago prompts sincere talk of violence. But some threats remain mere threats.

A black-and-white photo of Donald Trump speaking from a stage at a Georgia rally, taken from the perspective of a seated member of the audience.
Peter Zay / Anadolu Agency / Getty

In some corners of MAGA-land, a new civil war is getting under way. The FBI’s arrival at Mar-a-Lago yesterday evening to collect evidence in a criminal investigation related to former President Donald Trump is the trigger that some of his supporters needed to suggest that violence is imminent. Predictably, the unverified Twitter accounts of armchair revolutionaries circulated claims such as “I already bought my ammo” and dark talk of “kinetic civil war” and “Civil War 2.0.”

Not to be outdone, the National Rifle Association posted an image of Justice Clarence Thomas above an indignant quotation from a majority opinion he wrote: “The constitutional right to bear arms in public for self-defense is not ‘a second class right.’” Verified right-wing influencers got in on the martial rhetoric, too. “Tomorrow is war. Sleep well,” Steven Crowder promised.

The bad news is that much of this talk is sincere. It is intended to intimidate the people investigating Trump’s many abuses of power, and to galvanize and organize his true believers—some of whom already proved on January 6, 2021, that they will commit violence in his name. The latest such propaganda is shocking to read, mostly because the talk of violence comes so casually to Trump’s apologists. It is all out in the open now.

The good news is that some threats remain merely threats. A violent movement either grows or shrinks. Its ideology is not defeated; it simply stops motivating people to action.

Trump has a hold on a party that has been offered plenty of exit ramps from its relationship with him, but he is not Voldemort. He has been isolated and humiliated. Many of the individuals who used violence to support him on January 6 are now in jail. His audiences have dwindled. Even on the night of the FBI search, in the area of Florida that he now calls home, an impromptu roadside demonstration in support of him attracted “roughly two dozen” supporters, the Miami Herald reported. “Roughly two dozen” isn’t a revolution. It isn’t even a rally.

For many Americans who wish for a peaceful democracy and remain frustrated about Trump’s continuing influence in Republican primaries, hope springs eternal that someone or something—Robert Mueller, two impeachment drives, and now criminal investigators—will definitively erase his power. But expecting saviors to intervene is the wrong way to think about how the threat of violence from Trump’s supporters might dissipate. Rather, the danger will be over when violent MAGAism becomes a rallying cry for a limited pool of adherents whose online anger fizzles upon contact with the real world.

A win, at this stage, isn’t that Trump’s troops make an apology. It is that they remain an online threat, a cosplay movement, a pretend army that can’t deliver, whose greatest strength is in their heads rather than reality.

Trump, as a former president of the United States, may be a rather unique leader of a violent insurrection, but that doesn’t make the ongoing, multiyear strategy any less effective. The January 6 committee has adopted a counter-insurrection strategy by portraying Trump squarely as the leader of a violent movement, and not simply the leader of the GOP. But some of his more extreme followers are now turning on one another. Members of the Oath Keepers, for example, have spoken to FBI investigators about matters connected with the Capitol riot—a sign that at least some fear legal penalties more than they fear the consequences of breaking with Trump. If the former president’s legal jeopardy deepens, he will in all likelihood try to raise the level of agitation in the days ahead; he knows how to use language that incites followers to violence without giving them specific instruction.

But allow me at least a glimmer of optimism. “Sometime they’ll give a war and nobody will come,” the poet and author Carl Sandburg famously wrote. And the decline of MAGA looks something like that—just a smattering of people respond to the overheated rhetoric of Trump and his allies. If Trump’s supporters only end up cosplaying a civil war, that itself is a small victory.