“Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” asked King Henry II of England in 1170, delivering one of antiquity’s most infamous lines. Four knights didn’t take it as a rhetorical question; rather, they interpreted it as a call to action. The result was the murder of Thomas Becket, the troublesome archbishop of Canterbury.
It’s a cautionary tale about the dangers of powerful people using violent rhetoric. It’s also an indicator that we haven’t absorbed the lesson in the ensuing 852 years.
Take, for example, rhetoric surrounding the FBI’s search of Mar-a-Lago. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy called it “an intolerable state of weaponized politicization,” Rep. Jeff Duncan called the FBI “corrupt to the core,” Rep. Troy Nehls (a former sheriff) railed against a “corrupt DOJ and the FBI,” and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene tweeted: “DEFUND THE FBI!” In the wake of the rhetoric, the FBI is investigating an “unprecedented” number of threats.
Meanwhile, a man wearing body armor and said to be armed with a nail gun and an AR-15 tried to breach the FBI’s Cincinnati field office, and online posts say things like “[Attorney General Merrick] Garland needs to be assassinated” and “kill all feds.”
To you and me, this sounds utterly evil, horrific, and disproportionate. But if you sincerely believe, as Trump and his Republican allies suggest you should, that the 2020 election was stolen by the “deep state” and enabled by a corrupt media and RINOs, this reaction—like the Jan. 6 Capitol riot—becomes merely predictable. Indeed, many of the participants in the Jan. 6 riot believed that Trump ordered them to the Capitol to “Stop the Steal.”
Why wouldn’t a subsequent attempt by a supposedly corrupt FBI to jail the rightful president evoke a similar reaction?
Of course, it’s worth asking why Americans would choose to believe this highly implausible and illogical alternate theory of events.
The answer, of course, is that Trump and his allies have told lies so big that violence seems to be the only logical answer.
It hardly matters that their conspiracy theories are mutually exclusive or contradictory. Flooding the zone with shit was former Breitbart boss and senior Trump White House adviser Steve Bannon’s method of choice to create chaos. But what was once just “triggering the snowflakes” now feels more like a deliberate attempt to stoke a violent uprising.
Of course, while he simultaneously calls out all the “scams” and “witch hunts” coming from his enemies, Trump is assuring us that he “will do whatever” he can “to help the country” get past this “very dangerous position.”
Just as he invoked the word “peacefully” on Jan. 6 (while inciting a riot)—and just as he finally told the Capitol rioters to go home (while reiterating that the election had been stolen)—Trump wants to have his cake and eat it, too. He now has a semblance of plausible deniability if, God forbid, an FBI agent (or a family member) is killed.
But if he really wanted to prevent that fate, the first and most important thing he could do is to simply stop calling the FBI’s investigation a scam.
Trump is a political arsonist, but he’s not the only one playing with fire. The ex-president’s supporters also are contributing to this heated environment.
First, they are parroting and escalating his rhetoric. As The Atlantic’s Tim Alberta tweeted, “Every GOP official who’s been tweeting ‘They’re coming for you!’ ‘authoritarian state’ ‘destroy the FBI’ etc. needs to sit down…and think about the blood they’re going to have on their hands.”
Second, some are literally endangering law enforcement officers by publishing their names. A few days ago, Breitbart revealed the FBI agents involved in the Mar-a-Lago raid.
Threats are also being lodged at the judge who reportedly signed the search warrant. According to VICE, “Multiple members of… toxic online communities are even posting what appears to be Judge Bruce Reinhart’s home address, phone numbers, and names of his family members alongside threats of extreme violence.”
Will no one rid us of these meddlesome judges?
For those keeping score on the hypocrisy watch, we’re only four months removed from the right-wing freakout after The Washington Post “doxxed” the woman behind the “Libs of TikTok” Twitter feed. This is not meant as a defense of that story, but ask yourself, who was in more danger from the disclosure? A woman who runs a Twitter feed spotlighting TikTok videos that progressives have voluntarily published—or the FBI agents involved in executing a lawful search (with a warrant) of a private residence allegedly housing highly classified government documents?
No need to answer that.
It is widely known that anyone who criticizes Trump will be viciously attacked in some manner. This inevitability has a chilling effect.
What is more, because everyone knows Trump is a thin-skinned loose cannon, anyone who challenges him is cast as the provocateur. So, if you care about preventing a civil war, you have to avoid angering him. This applies to law enforcement. As Tim Alberta confessed to thinking: “If America is a powder keg, then one overreach by the government, real or perceived, could light the fuse.”
Thus, (from Trump’s perspective) the threat of violence is a feature, not a bug, of Trump’s MAGA movement.
In a sense, we are all being held hostage. You can let Trump continue his lawlessness, or stand up to him, and suffer the (potentially violent) consequences (for which, you will be blamed). That is your choice. It’s heads Trump wins, and tails, you lose.