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21 February 2024

Maga harassment is eroding democracy

Donald Trump’s supporters are turning to threats and violence to intimidate their opponents.

By Jill Filipovic

Of all the advantages Donald Trump has in the 2024 presidential election, the biggest may be his ability to grab headlines while having exhausted his capacity to shock. He remains in the public eye, but it’s difficult to imagine there is anything he could do to turn away his voters. Even as his comments get more extreme – encouraging Russia to attack European countries being only the latest example – the response pattern remains the same: headlines, outrage from liberals, cheers from conservatives, nose-holding and glancing away by many moderates and independents. All this while the swathe of voters who pay scant attention to politics conclude that “this is just how he is”.

Which perhaps explains why the former president heads one of the most prolific harassment and intimidation machines in the country with almost zero political cost.

The extent to which Trump’s “Make America Great Again” (Maga) followers have hounded anyone they see as his enemy is among the most disturbing and under-appreciated dynamics of contemporary US political life. That isn’t to say these threats go uncovered. Yet when they are they largely fail to shock, even though they should be a national scandal so enormous as to be disqualify Trump from office.

Former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley has this month requested Secret Service protection because she has faced so many threats, simply for running against Trump in the Republican primary. Her home has been “swatted” – whereby a harasser makes a false report of an emergency so an armed Swat team descends on a target’s residence – twice.

E Jean Carroll, who sued Trump for defamation and sexual abuse and won, has been inundated with violent messages ever since, including many that threaten her with rape and murder. The 80-year-old journalist says she now sleeps with a gun by her bed. Federal judge Tanya Chutkan, who presides over one of Trump’s many ongoing court cases, has also been a favoured target. A day after Trump posted “IF YOU GO AFTER ME, I’M COMING AFTER YOU!” on social media in August, a supporter in Texas left her a voicemail saying, “If Trump doesn’t get elected in 2024, we are coming to kill you, so tread lightly, bitch,” and added a racial slur.

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Chutkan’s home has been swatted, as have the homes of Judge Arthur Engoron, who was overseeing the New York fraud case against Trump; Special Counsel Jack Smith, who is investigating Trump’s involvement in the 6 January 2021 attack on the Capitol; and Maine’s secretary of state, Shenna Bellows, who removed Trump from the state’s primary ballot. One of Judge Engoron’s law clerks, a young woman whom Trump has bizarrely latched on to and accused of being the “girlfriend” of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, has received daily floods of menacing texts, emails and phone calls to her personal line.

Former Wyoming senator Liz Cheney spent $58,000 on private security in three months after backing Trump’s impeachment in 2021, while Mitt Romney says he has spent $5,000 a day on security since the 6 January insurrection. According to Romney, some Republicans refuse to criticise Trump or have decided against voting to impeach him due to worries for their own and their family’s safety.

Average citizens also receive threats. After Georgia’s secretary of state Brad Raffensperger found Trump’s stolen election claims to be meritless, his wife Tricia received threatening texts, including one saying: “You and your family will be killed very slowly.” Their daughter-in-law, the widow of the Raffenspergers’ deceased son, had her home broken into; and the Raffenspergers said far-right militia members gathered outside their own home the same evening, prompting them to flee.

Trump supporters have threatened to blow up polling sites and murder poll workers, have posted election workers’ home addresses online and sent them sexually explicit photos. One poll worker said an SUV tried to run her off the road. Trump supporters have invoked his name during violent attacks, including menacing, assaults, beatings and shootings.

These are not unhinged people acting alone. Those who suffer threats have been named by Trump, either on social media or at one of his rallies. This puts a target on their backs.

Trump could tell his base to relent. He could stop using social media to attack others by name, knowing they will face aggression and harassment. Instead, he engages in behaviour he knows will bring down hell on anyone of his choosing.

That’s because threats and violence largely work: many reasonable people pipe down, and extremists step up. Trump supporters are cleared to dominate Republican politics and, they hope, American life.

People step aside because the threats are credible. The insurrection of 6 January 2021 was deadly; it was also the entirely predictable outcome of Trump’s calls for supporters to steal the presidency. There is no reason to believe Trump won’t go for a repeat if he loses again in 2024.

This is eroding America’s democratic process, our courts and our elections. These vile acts shouldn’t be seen as the work of a few loose-cannon losers or “there he goes again” provocations, but as targeted mob attacks led by a man who wants to rule by tyranny, carried out by untold numbers of foot soldiers more loyal to a man than a nation.

[See also: No country for old men?]

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This article appears in the 21 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Fractured Nation

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
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