Fear factor in GOP politics
In the hundred thousandth example of his disordered psyche, the former president has stated on his social network that Gen. Mark Milley is guilty of “treason.”
This is not new, but that shouldn’t diminish our outrage. On at least 24 occasions, the former president has accused critics of treason. Now Trump has upped the ante by including a reference to the death penalty. Trump knows full well that some of his more rabid followers may interpret this as an invitation to assassination. That thuggishness, that play of the finger near the trigger, places Trump in a category all his own in American politics.
The stench of political violence has attached to Trump from the start. In 2016, CNN’s Jake Tapper invited him to denounce the KKK. Trump declined. Every American should have recognized at that moment that we were dealing with something sinister. That summer, when talk circulated of a convention floor fight, Trump consigliere Roger Stone warned that the Trump team had plans in place in case delegates proved independent-minded: “We will disclose the hotels and the room numbers of those delegates who are directly involved in the steal. … We urge you to visit their hotel and find them.”
Not subtle. Threaten them with the mob. The Trump method was evident then. For historians of the Big Lie, note that Stone further elaborated on Trump’s theory of the nomination fight: “It is interesting to me that in every primary or caucus where Ted Cruz won, we have certified, proven, sworn evidence of massive voter fraud, which will later be presented to the credentials committee in Cleveland in an attempt to unseat delegates who were illegally elected.”
“Certified, proven, sworn evidence.” The same damnable lies that destroyed faith in our democracy among tens of millions of Americans when they were repeated, nearly verbatim, four years later.
I have often stressed that in 2016 it required only political courage to stand against Trump, but by 2020, due to the decay of decency in the GOP, it required physical courage, too. If some critical mass of Republicans had demonstrated the requisite political courage in 2016, it would never have come to this — that in the United States, political and other figures must think about their physical safety before deciding how to speak or vote. As McKay Coppins recounted in the excerpt of his forthcoming biography of Mitt Romney, by the time the Senate was considering whether to impeach Trump a second time for the Jan. 6 insurrection, fear had become a handmaiden to Republican officeholders. In 2016, Trump’s bullying and Stone’s veiled threats were shrugged off. In 2021, after witnessing Jan. 6, the hammer attack on Paul Pelosi, the swarm of screaming Trump supporters who surrounded Lindsey Graham in an airport after he criticized Trump, and so much more, wavering senators who were considering voting to convict Trump were warned by others to “think of your personal safety. Think of your children.” It’s a mistake, in my judgment, to minimize the role that fear now plays in assisting and enabling Trump’s continued dominance.
Romney is hardly alone among members of Congress in worrying about personal security. In the first year of Trump’s tenure, threats against members of Congress quadrupled from fewer than 900 to 3,930. Threats continued to rise throughout the Trump presidency, more than doubling by 2020. After Jan. 6, the Capitol Police estimated that there were more than 10,000 threats of violence or death against members.
These members face their constituents in person on a regular basis. They are at far higher risk from a stray gunman than journalists or others who also routinely receive threats. Liz Cheney displayed inspiring courage during the House Jan. 6 Committee hearings. History will doubtless credit her, but her constituents did not. During the 2022 campaign, out of concern for her safety in Wyoming, she stopped doing town halls and other public engagements entirely.
It isn’t just members of Congress. The sense of menace has invaded every level of American politics. As Time magazine reported in 2022, “Threats against federal judges have spiked 400% in the past six years, to more than 4,200 in 2021.”
A survey of mayors found that one in three had considered resigning due to death threats, and 70% reported knowing of someone who chose not to run for office out of fear for their personal security. A study of local officials in San Diego found that 75% had received threats or harassment, with women bearing the brunt. Among election workers nationwide, 20% knew someone who would no longer participate due to threats and 73% said threats and harassment had increased in recent years.
We cannot have a viable political system that relies on extraordinarily brave people — because there aren’t enough of them.
This level of intimidation is new. It can be countered with coordinated action by law enforcement, media, the courts and the public — but only if we recognize the nature of what we’re dealing with. Our elaborate government and society were designed over centuries to prevent rule by fear and violence. But those ancient foes are very much alive in the MAGA GOP and cannot be wished away.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Mona Charen is policy editor of The Bulwark and host of the “Beg to Differ” podcast. Her new book, “Hard Right: The GOP’s Drift Toward Extremism,” is available now.