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Donald Trump’s New Lost Cause

"Civil war" rhetoric is not uncommon on the fringes of American political discourse. Now it’s also coming from the White House.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

In 1992, a 24-year-old man in Lockport, New York, wrote a letter to the editor of his small local newspaper. The Gulf War veteran looked at the country’s future and saw little reason for optimism. “What is it going to take to open the eyes of our elected officials?” he wrote. “America is in serious decline!”

The letter’s author expressed outrage at economic and social conditions in the country. “Crime is so out of control,” he wrote. “Criminals have no fear of punishment.” He complained that the middle class “has all but disappeared,” that taxes “are a joke,” and that politicians “are out of control.” He did not believe that electoral politics could cure what ailed America: Politicians routinely broke their campaign promises and proposed solutions that only made things worse.

He also hinted at far darker views that shaped his worldview. “Racism on the rise?” he wrote. “You had better believe it! Is this America’s frustrations venting themselves? Is it a valid frustration? Who is to blame for the mess? At a point when the world has seen communism falter as an imperfect system to manage people; democracy seems to be headed down the same road. No one is seeing the ‘big’ picture.”

The letter ended with a grim warning. “We have no proverbial tea to dump, should we instead sink a ship full of Japanese imports?” he asked. “Is a civil war imminent? Do we have to shed blood to reform the current system? I hope it doesn’t come to that. But it might.” Three years later, the letter’s author parked a rental truck filled with fertilizer outside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City and detonated it. The explosion killed 168 people, including 19 children inside a day-care center on the building’s first floor.

Rhetoric like Timothy McVeigh’s is not uncommon on fringes of American political discourse. Now it’s also coming from the White House. “As I learn more and more each day,” President Donald Trump wrote on Twitter on Tuesday night, “I am coming to the conclusion that what is taking place is not an impeachment, it is a COUP, intended to take away the Power of the People, their VOTE, their Freedoms, their Second Amendment, Religion, Military, Border Wall, and their God-given rights as a Citizen of The United States of America!”

House Democrats are lawfully using their constitutional powers to investigate whether Trump’s actions in the Ukraine scandal justify his impeachment. In response, he and his allies are equating the process with criminality and acts of violence. Prominent conservatives like Newt Gingrich, Tucker Carlson, and Hugh Hewitt joined Trump in accusing Democrats of organizing a coup. Trump himself quoted a prominent supporter last week who claimed that Democrats’ actions were risking a “civil war”—an elliptical way of threatening that Trump’s supporters would wage such a war if he were removed from power.

What we’re witnessing is the birth of a lost-cause mythology for the Trump presidency. His supporters are being told that if he is impeached and removed from office, it won’t be due to the fact that he violated his oath of office by inviting foreign governments to interfere in the American democratic process. His downfall will instead be precipitated by a shadowy cabal of partisan Democrats, bent on overthrowing him—and American democracy, by proxy—through corrupt and illegitimate means. The risk here, as with the original Lost Cause narrative, is that it will encourage far-right groups to assault and murder Trump’s political opponents.

That risk is well-established. On the eve of the 2018 midterm elections last year, more than a dozen pipe bombs were mailed to frequent targets of Trump’s criticism: the Obama and Clinton families, multiple Democratic members of Congress, other liberal officials and donors, and the news network CNN. The FBI soon arrested Cesar Sayoc, a vocal Trump supporter who often distributed pro-Trump conspiracy theories on social media. Trump himself initially condemned Sayoc’s actions. Then he wrote that the mainstream media was responsible for “a very big part of the anger we see today in our society” and had to “clean up its act, FAST!”

Five months after the pipe bomb scare, federal agents arrested Coast Guard lieutenant Christopher Hassan on federal drug and firearms charges. In their motion to hold him before trial, prosecutors laid out a disturbing plot by Hassan to carry out a wave of assassinations against prominent Democrats and journalists. He allegedly stockpiled more than a dozen guns and a thousand rounds of ammunition while gathering information about where members of Congress resided. Hassan, who identified as a “long time White Nationalist,” hoped to “make change with a little focused violence.” Federal prosecutors gave the court a partial list of his Google searches on January 17, 2019, to show his motives.

8:54 a.m.: “what if trump illegally impeached”

8:57 a.m.: “best place in dc to see congress people”

8:58 a.m.: “where in dc to congress live”

10:39 a.m.: “civil war if trump impeached”

11:26 a.m.: “social democrats usa”

There’s a long, tragic history of political violence in America that predates Trump’s rise to power. But he stands apart, at least among modern American presidents, for his willingness to tacitly encourage it among his supporters. It’s been a staple of his ascent to national power: Trump regularly urged attendees and security personnel to treat protesters roughly when ejecting them from his rallies, even offering to pay for lawyers if they were arrested for it. “If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them, would you?” he remarked at one event. “Seriously, okay. Just knock the hell—I promise you I will pay for the legal fees, I promise.”

Trump’s remarks broke the usual taboo in healthy democratic societies that violence is an illegitimate form of political expression. In August of 2016, he warned rally-goers that if Clinton appointed federal judges there would be “nothing you can do, folks,” then added, “although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know.” In August, ABC News reported that it had found 36 criminal cases nationwide where Trump’s name was invoked by defendants who committed or threatened to commit violent acts. The network said it found no state or federal cases where defendants claimed they acted in the name of Barack Obama or George W. Bush.

Conservative media outlets, for their part, have spent the last three years focused on the supposed threat posed by Antifa. The decentralized anti-fascist movement emerged after Trump’s election as a response to the public resurgence of white-nationalist groups. Its masked members often hold counter-protests against far-right demonstrations. They regularly confront their perceived opponents with physical force, ranging from thrown milkshakes to assault and battery. Some white nationalists attribute their movement’s faltering momentum to the left-wing protests. “Antifa is winning,” Richard Spencer told supporters this year after his college campus tour fell apart.

While Antifa’s actions in recent years are dwarfed by the ever-increasing catalog of far-right violence, they receive a disproportionate share of attention from conservatives. Texas Senator Ted Cruz introduced a non-binding resolution in July that would brand Antifa members as domestic terrorists. White House adviser Kellyanne Conway falsely claimed in August that “Antifa” was shorthand for “anti-First Amendment.” BuzzFeed’s Joe Bernstein recently noted that “a search for ‘Antifa’ on Fox News’ website from November 2016 to the present returns 668 results, while ‘homelessness’ returns 587, and ‘OxyContin,’ 140.” Though Antifa “has no record of lethal violence in this country,” Bernstein said the group “has been skillfully transmogrified by the conservative media into one of the gravest threats facing Americans in 2019—the rampant id of an already irrational left.”

At the same time, conservative leaders and outlets often downplay massacres and other acts of violence committed by the far right. Rush Limbaugh theorized that a gunman who broadcast himself killing 51 Muslims in Christchurch, New Zealand, earlier this year supported the Green New Deal. Limbaugh, Lou Dobbs, Dinesh D’Souza, and other conservatives initially responded to Sayoc’s pipe bombing plot by suggesting it was a “fake news” hoax or that Democrats were actually responsible. House Republican lawmakers invited conservative activist Candace Owens to appear before a congressional hearing on white nationalism last month, where she testified that “white supremacy and white nationalism is not a problem that is harming black America.”

Perhaps the best example came in August, after a white nationalist murdered 22 people at an El Paso Walmart in what his manifesto described as an attempt to prevent a “Hispanic invasion of the United States.” Days later, Fox News host Tucker Carlson dismissed the threat of white supremacy as “not a real problem” and a “hoax” created by the left. “Just like the Russia hoax, it’s a conspiracy theory used to divide the country and keep a hold on power,” he warned viewers. Carlson’s claim is particularly audacious, given that he might be one of the most prominent distributors of white-nationalist views in America today.

The resulting narrative is not hard to piece together. Americans who get almost all of their news from Fox News and other right-wing outlets are receiving a disturbing set of messages: that Democrats have brought the country to the brink of civil war, that speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi’s effort to impeach the president is an illegitimate coup, and that liberals’ open-borders policies will make it impossible for Republicans to win future elections. Far-right massacres are actually leftist hoaxes, but Antifa will bludgeon any conservatives who dissent into submission. Thankfully, the overwhelming majority of Trump supporters won’t respond to this by picking up a rifle. But it seems almost inevitable that some will.

Like many people who commit mass murder, McVeigh later argued that he hadn’t fired the first shot. The bombing, he explained, was revenge for the government’s suppression of far-right militias at Ruby Ridge and Waco. McVeigh said he initially planned a campaign of assassinations by targeting Attorney General Janet Reno, a federal judge, and an FBI sniper who was present at Ruby Ridge, but ultimately decided to strike a more symbolic target instead. “Foremost,” he wrote in a letter to reporters shortly before his execution, “the bombing was a retaliatory strike; a counter attack, for the cumulative raids (and subsequent violence and damage) that federal agents had participated in over the preceding years.”

There is little chance that the FBI or the Justice Department will heed the president’s demand to arrest and jail California Representative Adam Schiff for “treason” and “fraud.” But there’s a very real chance that a handful of Trump’s supporters will decide that violence is the only appropriate response and act accordingly. The specter of potential violence shouldn’t deter lawmakers from pushing forward with the impeachment process. If anything, it underscores why Trump’s impeachment is a moral imperative.