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Column: Will the Republican Party trigger another round of Jan. 6-style violence?

A man in a suit and tie gesturing and speaking into a microphone
House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy’s bootlicking response to the lawful search of Mar-a-Lago constitutes fighting words for the Trump base.
(Meg Kinnard / Associated Press)

Wasn’t Jan. 6, 2021, proof enough for Rep. “My Kevin” McCarthy and other Republican officials that words matter?

That anti-government rhetoric, echoes of Donald Trump’s grievances and war metaphors are triggers — no pun intended — for a small battalion of armed extremists, who stand back and stand by for any perceived signal to literally go into battle for the defeated president?

That someone could get killed?

Clearly Republicans haven’t learned that lesson.

Opinion Columnist

Jackie Calmes

Jackie Calmes brings a critical eye to the national political scene. She has decades of experience covering the White House and Congress.

The only surprise bigger than the news Monday of the FBI search of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home was the immediate circling of the wagons among what passes these days for the Republican Party establishment. At least after the insurrection at the Capitol, McCarthy, Sen. Lindsey Graham and other sycophants rebuked Trump for his incitements before quickly falling back in line. This week they went straight to bootlicking.

Here’s McCarthy, in a fast-off-the-blocks tweet that took up Trump’s provocative charge that Democrats had “weaponized” law enforcement for an unprecedented “raid”:

“I’ve seen enough. The Department of Justice has reached an intolerable state of weaponized politicization,” McCarthy wrote.

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Reflecting how desperate he is for Trump’s support to become House speaker should Democrats lose their majority in November, he added: “When Republicans take back the House, we will conduct immediate oversight of this department, follow the facts, and leave no stone unturned. Attorney General Garland, preserve your documents and clear your calendar.”

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis decried the Biden administration’s “weaponization of federal agencies against the Regime’s political opponents,” and Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley (he of the raised-fist salute to the Jan. 6 militants) demanded the ouster, “at a minimum,” of Atty. Gen. Merrick Garland and FBI Director Christopher A. Wray (a Trump appointee). Little better than all that chest-beating was the virtual silence of other Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

In a healthy political party, the leaders would long ago have stood up to Trump and said stop — stop undermining our democracy and arousing the unhinged. In this instance, Republican officials should have urged Americans to let the rule of law take its course. They could have noted that the feds had a search warrant, approved by a judge who was persuaded by the government’s evidence that there was probable cause to believe a crime had been committed.

Woulda, shoulda, coulda. But Republicans didn’t and don’t.

Atty. Gen. Merrick Garland made his first public comments since the FBI search of former President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence earlier this week.

The same Republican officials who for years countenanced or even encouraged the autocratic chants of “Lock ’er up” are now expressing outrage when Trump gets the benefit of the rule of law. The leaders of the purported party of law and order, who acquiesced as then-President Trump subverted the nation’s chief law enforcement agencies, now dutifully repeat his claims that it’s Joe Biden who’s politicizing the Justice Department and the FBI.

But them’s fightin’ words to many of the former president’s fanatical followers, who — thanks to Trump and other elected Republicans — believe Biden is an illegitimate president and the federal government a rogue operation. Traffic on right-wing social media sites this week was full of calls for “civil war” and “assassinations,” NBC News reported.

Throughout Thursday, I received the usual fundraising emails from Trump Inc., which now seek donations to fight “this NEVERENDING WITCH HUNT.” The emails goad supporters: “When they come after HIM, they are REALLY coming after YOU.” Meanwhile on Thursday, an armed man was shot and killed by police after he tried to breach a Cincinnati FBI complex.

In Florida, the judge who approved the search warrant for Mar-a-Lago reportedly was getting violent, antisemitic threats from far-right extremists. Fox News said Garland, Wray and FBI agents were getting more death threats than usual. And Rep. Eric Swalwell, a California Democrat and vocal Trump critic, released a recording of a profane, racist caller who said someone should cut off his head and the heads of his wife and kids too.

Historians, political scientists and journalists who study Republican voters and far-right groups are increasingly sounding alarms. Northwestern University historian Kathleen Belew tweeted of white-power groups and the militant right, “YES, they HAVE BEEN waiting for a moment like this.”

The FBI wouldn’t have broken hundreds of years of precedent over a misplaced memo, one expert said. A look at what the Justice Department may have sought and what it may have found at Trump’s home.

Months before the 2020 election, Vanderbilt University political scientist Larry M. Bartels reported on a survey of Republican voters that showed most agreed that “the traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it.”

“How concerned should we be,” he wrote then, speaking of Trump, “that a president who assails ‘essential institutions and traditions’ of democracy has found millions of followers willing to endorse significant violations of democratic norms, including resort to force in pursuit of political ends?”

Very concerned, we found out: Six months later, pro-Trump insurrectionists sacked the Capitol.

Bartels and his student Nick Carnes lately have been studying Republicans in Congress, and he tells me their tentative findings challenge the conventional wisdom that these political elites back Trump and Trumpism because of pressure from party voters. “Our take is that, to a surprising (and perhaps frightening) extent, they are going along out of genuine conviction.”

Another key takeaway, Bartels said, is the importance of leadership. “No one has a firm grip on the destructive forces roiling contemporary American democracy,” he wrote in an email. But he said Republican leaders, especially, “still have a lot of sway and bear a lot of responsibility for how those forces play out.”

Indeed. The message to those “leaders” is just what White House Counsel Pat Cipollone told Trump’s White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows 19 months ago, according to sworn testimony from former Meadows aide Cassidy Hutchinson, as Meadows and Trump did nothing in the hours of hand-to-hand combat at the Capitol.

“Blood’s going to be on your effing hands.”

@jackiekcalmes


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