American Carnage
Mother Jones|March/April 2021
Trump used the White House to unleash a domestic terrorism movement. Security experts are worried what it will do next.
By Mark Follman

Even the Wifi password was a signal. Attendees at President Donald Trump’s rally in Dalton, Georgia, on January 4 who wanted to log in to the Make America Great network had to enter the phrase into their devices: “SeeYou- Jan6!” Trump was in town that night ostensibly to boost two Republican Senate candidates, but he spent much of his speech railing about the “stolen” 2020 election—and inciting supporters to descend on the nation’s capital two days later. “They’re not taking this White House,” he declared, Marine One spotlighted behind him. The crowd roared. “We’re going to fight like hell.”

Throughout the summer and early fall, amid polls forecasting a Trump loss, the president and his surrogates had ramped up their baseless claims that the election would be tainted by massive fraud. (The election proved to be “the most secure in American history,” according to US cybersecurity director Chris Krebs, whom Trump quickly fired for saying so.) By mid- December, as Trump’s campaign was losing dozens of lawsuits alleging manipulated results in battleground states, Trump began targeting January 6, the day Congress would certify President Joe Biden’s victory. “Statistically impossible to have lost the 2020 Election,” Trump tweeted. “Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!” The election was “the biggest scam in our nation’s history,” he wrote in another tweet, adding: “Never give up. See everyone in D.C. on January 6th.”

Trump did more than just invite supporters to a rally. He also repeatedly shared a slickly produced video, titled “The Plot to Steal America,” that warned ominously of a Chinese communist scheme involving Biden, the Democrats, and the news media, and called for Trump supporters to mobilize. “We know that our rights don’t come from the government, but from God,” declared the narrator, an Ohio jewelry buyer formerly employed by the pro-Trump propaganda outlet the Epoch Times. “And we will fight to the death to protect those rights.” In a tweet the day after Christmas, Trump suggested that if the Democrats were in his position, the “Rigged & Stolen” presidential election would be considered “an act of war, and fight to the death.”

This drumbeat all built toward the cold gray morning in early January when tens of thousands of fervent Trump supporters gathered for a “Save America” rally outside the White House. “We’re coming for you,” vowed Donald Trump Jr. from the stage, targeting members of Congress who didn’t support overturning the November results. “Let’s have trial by combat,” said Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal attorney, adding, “I’ll be darned if they’re going to take our free and fair vote.” “Today is the day American patriots start taking down names and kicking ass!” shouted Alabama Rep. Mo Brooks. “Our ancestors sacrificed their blood, their sweat, their tears, their fortunes, and sometimes their lives...Are you willing to do the same?”

Trump strode to the podium for the finale. “We will never concede,” he said. “You don’t concede when there’s theft involved.” As he urged supporters to march on the Capitol and “stop the steal,” he slipped in a line about making their voices heard “peacefully and patriotically.” But the majority of his speech was steeped in the language of betrayal and belligerence. “You’ll never take back our country with weakness,” he told the increasingly agitated crowd. “You have to show strength.” And: “If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.”

THE MOB ASSAULT on Congress that left five people dead, scores injured, the Capitol building desecrated, and American democracy deeply shaken was the culmination of a campaign of terrorism. It was led by the president of the United States.

The description of Trump as a terrorist leader is neither metaphor nor hyperbole—it is the assessment of veteran national security experts. Trump, those experts say, adopted a method known as stochastic terrorism, a process of incitement where the instigator provokes extremist violence under the guise of plausible deniability. Although the exact location, timing, and source of the violence may not be predictable, its occurrence is almost inevitable. When pressed about the incitement, the instigator typically responds with equivocal denials and muted denunciations of violence, or claims to have been “joking,” as Trump and those speaking on his behalf routinely made.

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