The line between imagination and delusion is thin, as Donald Trump’s initial reaction to an FBI search at Mar-a-Lago in August demonstrated. In the first days afterward, the former president saw the search as a political gift, not a blow: a chance to rally his base, put would-be challengers like Ron DeSantis in their place, and reconsolidate his eroding position as the leader of the Republican Party.
Over time, it has become clear that the FBI finding reams of top-secret documents at his club is not, in fact, a boon to Trump. Even with the presidential-records investigation slowed down by a sympathetic judge, the probe has exacted costs both political and monetary, including a $3 million prepayment to a lawyer aware of Trump’s tendency to stiff people who provide services. Nearly every Trump adviser you’ve ever heard of, plus a few you haven’t, has been subpoenaed by the Justice Department in an investigation into election subversion, and the House committee looking into the same matter will return to public hearings later this month. The New York attorney general just rejected a settlement offer in an investigation into Trump’s business.
No single strategy can handle the range of problems Trump faces. With some clever forum-shopping, he managed to get the FBI investigation into the hands of a judge whom he appointed late in his term—she was confirmed after the 2020 election—and whose rulings have baffled and appalled legal experts. But this is a stalling tactic, not a solution, and not every judge draw will be so lucky. A second strategy is to cry political persecution, which is good at rallying the minority of the population who already stands behind him but unlikely to win over those who don’t, especially because the claims are so unpersuasive.
This brings us to a third gambit: threats. If the people pursuing these criminal investigations into his conduct don’t back off, he warns, someone—not him, mind you—might do something dangerous. In this heads-I-win, tails-you-lose logic, the justice system can either exempt Trump from the rule of law or risk someone destroying it by other means. Nice democracy you’ve got here. Shame if someone tried to make it great again, again.
In an interview yesterday, the conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, a Trump critic turned flatterer, asked whether being criminally indicted would dissuade Trump from running for president in 2024. Trump took the answer in a dark direction.
“I don’t think the people of the United States would stand for it,” he said. “I think if it happened, I think you’d have problems in this country the likes of which perhaps we’ve never seen before. I don’t think the people of the United States would stand for it.”
The implication was clear enough that Hewitt felt the need to throw Trump a preemptive lifeline: “You know that the legacy media will say you’re attempting to incite violence with that statement.”
“That’s not inciting,” Trump replied. “I’m just saying what my opinion is. I don’t think the people of this country would stand for it.”
But there’s no need to believe he’s merely making an analytical judgment. Anyone else can see as clearly as Hewitt what Trump is doing. As The Atlantic’s editor in chief, Jeffrey Goldberg, has noted, Trump commonly uses this mob-boss-derived method: He speaks in fluent innuendo and implication, making his desires clear while leaving himself just enough vagueness to be able to smirkingly deny it.
Like a Mafia don’s warnings, this Don’s warnings serve as a kind of intimidation, trying to make authorities who care a great deal about the government, civil peace, and the reputations of their agencies (as Attorney General Merrick Garland clearly does) wonder whether it’s really worth enforcing the law against this particular would-be defendant.
These threats might also actually occasion violence. By now, everyone—Trump, Hewitt, you, me—has seen this happen. Sometimes, the violence comes from mentally disturbed individuals who think they’re doing what Trump wants, such as Cesar Sayoc, who sent bombs to Trump critics shortly before the 2018 midterms, or Ricky Walter Shiffer, who was killed after attempting to attack an FBI office in Cincinnati just days after the Mar-a-Lago search.
Other times, the violence comes from Trump backers who simply listen to what he says: the kinds of people who slugged protesters at campaign rallies after he waxed nostalgic for the “good old days” of rough treatment and offered to pay legal bills, or who stormed the Capitol on January 6, 2021, after Trump called on them to “fight like hell.”
If there was a time when Trump didn’t know how people would respond when he makes these veiled threats, it has passed. He understands now, and does it anyway. His persistence also helps show why his claims that his exhortations on January 6 were not incitement are not to be believed.
This very real menace also makes Trump’s threats ultimately self-defeating. When he speaks this way—or when he embraces QAnon, or whatever fringe view he happens to be espousing at the moment—it riles up his backers, but it also drives away voters he needs to be a viable political force. This means the threats are unlikely to be Trump’s salvation, even as they could inflict real harm on American democracy. He seems not to care.