In recent days, numerous high-profile supporters of Donald Trump have reacted to his federal indictment with incendiary rhetoric glorifying violence.
Kari Lake, who ran unsuccessfully for governor of Arizona last year and refused to concede the election, told the Republican state convention in Georgia on Saturday: “I have a message tonight for Merrick Garland and Jack Smith and Joe Biden … most of us [Trump supporters] are card-carrying members of the NRA.” The day before, Representative Andy Biggs of Arizona tweeted: “We have now reached a war phase. Eye for an eye.” His tweet garnered nearly 6 million views.
This toxic rhetoric by political leaders seriously increases the risk of political violence in the short term, most importantly by lone-wolf attacks, although rioting mobs, as we saw with the Jan. 6 insurrection, are also a danger.
In recent years, numerous individuals charged with terrorism-related crimes have claimed that the rhetoric of political leaders convinced them to carry out their violent attacks. Others have been found by the authorities to be deeply enmeshed in it.
Psycho-social factors can lead individuals to mobilize to violence, but incendiary rhetoric by political leaders can make political violence more likely by increasing the perceived societal acceptance of what is normally considered antisocial behavior.
In study after study, researchers have found critical links between toxic rhetoric, support for political violence, and behavior that harms others. One study found that inflammatory speech by political leaders emboldens audiences to both express their own prejudices and engage in negative behavior based on those prejudices. Another found that, from 2015 to 2018, Trump’s tweets about Islam-related topics predicted increases in xenophobic tweets by this followers and hate crimes on the following days. Another study found that violent rhetoric by political leaders increases support for political violence, especially among those with aggressive personality traits.
The explosion of calls for civil war and violence would seem to confirm the academic studies finding that toxic rhetoric by politicians can encourage even more extreme sentiments to be expressed by others.
The violent rhetoric of Trump supporters is not occurring in a political vacuum. Recent national surveys of Americans have found disturbingly high levels of support for political violence — exactly the position that we would expect from ideologically committed, aggressive or otherwise volatile actors.
Worse, these surveys show many millions of American adults, not just a tiny number of Oath Keepers and Proud Boys, agree that violence is specifically justified to prevent Trump from prosecution.
For two and a half years, I have led a research team at the Chicago Project on Security & Threats at the University of Chicago that has conducted nearly a dozen surveys of violent sentiments in the US population, fielded by NORC at the University of Chicago and using the highest standards of survey research, a random sample of a 50,000-person, nationally representative panel matched to the US population on dozens and dozens of demographic, political, economic, and social factors.
Our April/May 2023 survey — fielded just weeks ago with over 8,000 respondents and a margin of error of about 1.5 percent — found that an estimated 16 million adults agree that “the use of force is justified to prevent the prosecution of Donald Trump.”
Further, these numbers have barely changed since the FBI raided Trump’s estate at Mar-a-Largo in August 2022, as the CPOST surveys from September 2022 and January 2023 show.
Overall, there is substantial evidence that significant segments of the general public — not just a tiny fringe — support violence specifically to prevent the prosecution of Trump. Understanding that support for political violence has moved from the fringe to a significant minority in the mainstream helps to make sense of the otherwise surprising volatility of our politics — and the risks from incendiary rhetoric by mainstream politicians.
Now federally indicted, Trump and his allies are escalating the rhetoric against the Justice Department, beyond merely challenging the legal case against him. On Sunday, Trump called special counsel Jack Smith “deranged” and his team of prosecutors “thugs.”
Trump has also started using rhetoric reminiscent of his Jan. 6 speech. On a radio show with Roger Stone on Sunday, Trump said: “We need strength in our country now. And they have to go out and they have to protest peacefully. They have to go out. Look, our country has to protest. We have plenty to protest. We’ve lost everything.”
Trump and his allies are closely following the Jan. 6 playbook — staunch objections that the Democrats are violating principles of democracy, thinly veiled calls for violent action, failure to condemn actual calls for violent action, and Trump’s calls for large crowds of any people to assemble to use “strength” to defend him as the only person standing in the way of tyranny.
In this context, Trump’s brief mention of “peaceful” in front of “protests” does not carry much weight. He added these words as a single sentence to his speech on Jan. 6 and the mob stormed the US Capitol anyway.
Why no effect? Trump and his allies are playing with fire and fire has a way of finding combustible material. He is mobilizing his most fervent supporters, who will be emboldened by the perception that violence would gain the approval of the former president and the political leaders who support him. The danger that any significant protest will become violent is therefore significant.
Under these circumstances, assembling an angry mob at an emotional moment for their perceived defense of the country creates the conditions for multiple pathways of violence. The crowd could fight perceived counterprotesting “liberals”; the police could overreach; or Trump himself could light the fuse with more incendiary rhetoric, to name a few.
As of now, while there is real risk of protest crowds escalating into riotous mobs given Trump’s calls for protest with “strength,” the main concern is lone-wolf violence. Lone-wolf violence is challenging for law enforcement because it could occur in locations not directly related to the trial site in Miami and could occur at any time over the coming months.
The best solution? Fox or CNN — or ideally both — should invite all the Republican candidates running for president to appear on stage together to ask them if they would condemn violence in the wake of the Trump indictment. Only a major media event like this can push back against the other media events encouraging violence. If they won’t appear together, then this will at least tell the public where they really stand on putting the safety of the country ahead of their own personal political ambitions.
Robert A. Pape is a professor of political science and director of the University of Chicago Project on Security and Threats.