What Comes After the Search Warrant?

Why August 8 may become a new hinge point in U.S. history

Donald Trump wearing a "Make America Great Again" hat
Megan Varner / Getty

If Donald Trump committed crimes on his way out of the White House, he should be subject to the same treatment as any other alleged criminal. The reason for this is simple: Ours is a government of laws, not of men, as John Adams once observed. Nobody, not even a president, is above those laws.

So why did I feel nauseous yesterday, watching coverage of the FBI executing a search warrant at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate?

Because this country is tracking toward a scale of political violence not seen since the Civil War. It’s evident to anyone who spends significant time dwelling in the physical or virtual spaces of the American right. Go to a gun show. Visit a right-wing church. Check out a Trump rally. No matter the venue, the doomsday prophesying is ubiquitous—and scary. Whenever and wherever I’ve heard hypothetical scenarios of imminent conflict articulated, the premise rests on an egregious abuse of power, typically Democrats weaponizing agencies of the state to target their political opponents. I’ve always walked away from these experiences thinking to myself: If America is a powder keg, then one overreach by the government, real or perceived, could light the fuse.

Think I’m being hysterical? I’ve been accused of that before. But we’ve seen what happens when millions of Americans abandon their faith in the nation’s core institutions. We’ve seen what happens when millions of Americans become convinced that their leaders are illegitimate. We’ve seen what happens when millions of Americans are manipulated into believing that Trump is suffering righteously for their sake; that an attack on him is an attack on them, on their character, on their identity, on their sense of sovereignty. And I fear we’re going to see it again.

It’s tempting to think of January 6, 2021, as but one day in our nation’s history. It’s comforting to view the events of that day—the president inciting a violent mob to storm the U.S. Capitol and attempt to overturn the results of a free and fair election—as the result of unprecedented conditions that happened to converge all at once, conditions that are not our national norm.

But perhaps we should view January 6 as the beginning of a new chapter.

It’s worth remembering that Trump, who has long claimed to be a victim of political persecution, threatened to jail his opponent, Hillary Clinton, throughout the 2016 campaign, reveling in chants of “Lock her up!” at rallies nationwide. (Republicans did not cry foul when the FBI announced an investigation into Clinton just days before the election.) It was during that campaign—as I traveled the country talking with Republican voters, hoping to understand the Trump phenomenon—that I began hearing casual talk of civil war. Those conversations were utterly jarring. People spoke matter-of-factly about amassing arms. Many were preparing for a day when, in their view, violence would become unavoidable.

I remember talking with Lee Stauffacher, a 65-year-old Navy veteran, outside an October Trump rally in Arizona. “I’ve watched this country deteriorate from the law-and-order America I loved into a country where certain people are above the law,” Stauffacher said. “Hillary Clinton is above the law. Illegal immigrants are above the law. Judges have stopped enforcing the laws they don’t agree with.”

Stauffacher went on about his fondness of firearms and his loathing of the Democratic Party. “They want to turn this into some communist country,” he said. “I say, over my dead body.”

This sort of rhetoric cooled, for a time, after Trump’s victory. But then came Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election interference and possible collusion. And the subsequent arrests of some of the president’s closest confidants. Then came the first impeachment of Trump himself. By the time his reelection campaign got under way, Trump was fashioning himself a wartime president, portraying himself on the front lines of a pitched battle between decent, patriotic Americans and a “deep state” of government thugs who aim to enforce conformity and silence dissent.

On December 18, 2019, the day he was impeached for the first time, Trump tweeted a black-and-white photo that showed him pointing into the camera. “THEY’RE NOT AFTER ME … THEY’RE AFTER YOU,” read the caption. “I’M JUST IN THE WAY.”

As I hit the road again in 2020, crisscrossing the nation to get a read on the Republican base, it was apparent that something had changed. There was plenty of that same bombast, all the usual chesty talk of people taking matters into their own hands. But whereas once the rhetoric had felt scattered—rooted in grievances against the left, or opposition to specific laws, or just general discomfort with a country they no longer recognized—the new threats seemed narrow and targeted. Voter after voter told me there had been a plot to sabotage Trump’s presidency from the start, and now there was a secretive plot to stop him from winning a second term. Everyone in government—public-health officials, low-level bureaucrats, local election administrators—was in on it. The goal wasn’t to steal the election from Trump; it was to steal the election from them.

“They’ve been trying to cheat us from the beginning,” Deborah Fuqua-Frey told me outside a Ford plant in Michigan that Trump was visiting during the early days of the pandemic. “First it was Mueller, then it was Russia. Isn’t it kind of convenient that as soon as impeachment failed, we’ve suddenly got this virus?”

I asked her to elaborate.

“The deep state,” she said. “This was domestic political terrorism from the Democratic Party.”

This kind of thinking explains why countless individuals would go on to donate their hard-earned money—more than $250 million in total—to an “Election Defense Fund” that didn’t exist. It explains why others swarmed vote-counting centers, intimidated poll workers, signed on to shoddy legal efforts, flocked to fringe voices advocating solutions such as martyrdom and secession from the union, threatened to kill elections officials, boarded buses to Washington, and ultimately stormed the United States Capitol.

What made January 6 so predictable—the willingness of Republican leaders to prey on the insecurities and outright paranoia of these voters—is what makes August 8 so dangerous.

“The Obama FBI began spying on President Trump as a candidate,” Senator Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee tweeted this morning. “If they can do this to Trump, they will do it to you!”

“If they can do it to a former President, imagine what they can do to you,” read a tweet from Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee. They followed up: “The IRS is coming for you. The DOJ is coming for you. The FBI is coming for you. No one is safe from political punishment in Joe Biden’s America.”

“If there was any doubt remaining, we are now living in a post constitutional America where the Justice Department has been weaponized against political threats to the regime, as it would in a banana republic,” the Texas Republican Party tweeted. “It won’t stop with Trump. You are next.”

It won’t stop with Trump—that much is certain. The House Republican leader, Kevin McCarthy, all but promised retaliation against the Justice Department should his party retake the majority this fall. Investigations of President Joe Biden and his son Hunter were already more or less guaranteed; the question now becomes how wide of a net congressional Republicans, in their eagerness to exact vengeance on behalf of Trump and appease a fuming base, cast in probing other people close to the president and his administration.

Assuming that Trump runs in 2024, the stakes are even higher. If Biden—or another Democrat—defeats him, Republicans will have all the more reason to reject the results, given what they see as the Democrats’ politically motivated investigation of the likely Republican nominee. If Trump wins, he and his hard-line loyalists will set about purging the DOJ, the intelligence community, and other vital government departments of careerists deemed insufficiently loyal. There will be no political cost to him for doing so; a Trump victory will be read as a mandate to prosecute his opponents. Indeed, that seems to be exactly where we’re headed.

“Biden is playing with fire by using a document dispute to get the @TheJusticeDept to persecute a likely future election opponent,” Senator Marco Rubio of Florida tweeted. “Because one day what goes around is going to come around.”

And then what? It feels lowest-common-denominator lazy, in such uncertain times, to default to speculation of 1860s-style secession and civil war. But it’s clearly on the minds of Americans. Last year, a poll from the University of Virginia showed that a majority of Trump voters (52 percent) and a strong minority of Biden voters (41 percent) strongly or somewhat agreed that America is so fractured, they would favor red and blue states seceding from the union to form their own countries. Meanwhile, a poll from The Washington Post and the University of Maryland showed that one in three Americans believes violence against the government is justified, and a separate poll by NPR earlier this year showed that one in 10 Americans believes violence is justified “right now.”

It’s hard to see how any of this gets better. But it’s easy to see how it gets much, much worse.

We don’t know exactly what the FBI was looking for at Mar-a-Lago. We don’t know what was found. What we must acknowledge—even those of us who believe Trump has committed crimes, in some cases brazenly so, and deserves full prosecution under the law—is that bringing him to justice could have some awful consequences.

Is that justice worth the associated risks? Yesterday, the nation’s top law-enforcement officers decided it was. We can only hope they were correct.