Calls for civil war after the FBI Mar-a-Lago search are loud, not new

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Calls for civil war after the FBI’s Mar-a-Lago search aren’t new — but they are louder

On Aug. 11, an armed man was killed in a standoff with police outside an FBI field office in Cincinnati. On Monday, a Pennsylvania man was charged with threatening federal law enforcement. In recent days, synagogue services were canceled in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., following threats against a federal judge who sat on its board, and barricades were erected outside of FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Each of these incidents is tied to heated threats online — including calls for violence and even civil war — from supporters of former President Donald Trump after the FBI searched his private residence, Mar-a-Lago, on Aug. 8. While the rhetoric is nothing new on the fringe-right internet, some portions of which have been preparing, or outright agitating, for civil war for years, some mainstream conservative outlets, like Fox News, have echoed the idea that conservative Americans are under attack. In this election year, some candidates are leveraging outrage over the event, too.

The resulting violence offline has risen to the point where current and former Republican elected officials are publicly calling for an end to such rhetoric, warning that it could spark real-life violence.

The overarching message in the right-wing media sphere is that the search at Mar-a-Lago signals a retaliatory political environment, in which institutions are being weaponized against political opponents and their supporters. (In fact, the FBI was executing a lawful search warrant as part of an investigation into the handling of classified documents.)

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Users on white nationalist and Proud Boy social channels shared their usual calls to arm up and prepare for violence, but so did right-wing personalities with broader reach. Shortly after the search was made public Aug. 8, the right-wing influencer Steven Crowder told his 1.9 million Twitter followers: “Tomorrow is war.” The Gateway Pundit, a pro-Trump online outlet, echoed: “This. Means. War.”

But some of the rhetoric stemming from the fringes of the internet has seeped into cable news. On Fox News, the political commentator Jesse Watters predicted that there would be “action you are going to see out on the streets from the base,” while Sean Hannity baselessly warned his viewers that the FBI would use the “full force of the federal government” to target people “associated with Donald Trump in any way.” That channel has discussed the Mar-a-Lago search hundreds of times in the days since, amplifying an argument that Trump and his allies and supporters are all under attack.

Civil war talk “has been woven throughout the rhetoric of the American conservative movements for decades,” Brian Hughes, co-founder of the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab (PERIL) at American University, told Grid.

But, he added, “The mainstream is calling for violence, both implicitly and explicitly, in a way that is unusual.”

That includes both pundits and politicians. Grid reviewed public statements by several dozen Republican candidates for elected office. Most expressed anger at what they described as an abuse of federal powers, but several Trump-backed candidates were more bellicose.

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The same day Joe Kent ousted Jaime Herrera Beutler, a Republican who voted to impeach Trump, in Washington State’s congressional primary, Kent told Stephen Bannon’s podcast, “We’re at war.” Laura Loomer, who’s running for Congress in Florida, wrote on her Telegram channel, “This is a WAR!” And Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake pledged to “fight these Tyrants with every fiber of my being.”

None of these campaigns responded to Grid’s request for comment.

On Friday, the Department of Homeland Security issued a bulletin warning of “an increase in violent threats posted on social media against federal officials and facilities,” following the search at Mar-a-Lago, according to multiple media reports. Threats included one to “place a so-called dirty bomb in front of FBI Headquarters and issuing general calls for ‘civil war’ and ‘armed rebellion,” the bulletin reads.

The threats against federal law enforcement have reached such a timbre that former Vice President Mike Pence, speaking at an event in New Hampshire on Wednesday, directly called for them to end. “Attacks on the FBI must stop,” said Pence – himself once the object of violent rhetoric on Jan. 6, when rioters at the Capitol called for him to be hanged.

And two Republican House members, Michael McCaul of Texas and Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, went on Sunday shows to decry inflammatory language against law enforcement.

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“Violence is never the answer to anything,” Fitzpatrick said on “Face the Nation.” “We live in a democracy that’s 246 years old. … And the only way that can come unraveled is if we have disrespect for our institutions that lead to Americans turning on Americans and the whole system becomes unraveled. And a lot of that starts with the words we’re using.”

On “Fox & Friends” on Monday, even Fox News’ Steve Doocy called on Trump supporters to “tamp down the rhetoric against the FBI” in light of the threats.

“Saber-rattling” around a potential civil war is nothing new in the American conservative movement, said Hughes, the PERIL director. But coming after years of political instability and the erosion of institutions, the new context for old content is alarming.

“Our society feels held together by just a few threads in a way I can’t remember in my lifetime,” he said of the response to the FBI’s search of Mar-a-Lago. “When [civil war talk] comes about in the circumstances where our civil infrastructure seems to be falling apart, and the climate crisis and covid and a really abysmal economy are all coalescing together — that’s what makes it more concerning.”

Thanks to Dave Tepps for copy editing this article.

  • Anya van Wagtendonk
    Anya van Wagtendonk

    Misinformation Reporter

    Anya van Wagtendonk is the misinformation reporter at Grid, focusing on the impact of false information on policy, elections and social behavior.