Trumpist Threats of Violence, Romney, and the Duty to Inform
As has long been the case, everything having to do with Donald Trump has a comic side and a serious side, but also a dangerous side. From his earliest exhortations to his supporters to "knock the crap" out of anti-Trump demonstrators (along with promises -- false promises, of course -- to pay for any assailants' legal fees), the threat of violence is always present with Trump.
The January 6th terrorist insurrection -- and, lest we forget, even Ted Cruz used the term "violent terrorist attack" to describe the Trumpists' assault on the Capitol, only to find himself in short order bowing and scraping before the Court of Tucker Carlson for his transgressions -- is by far the worst manifestation thus far of that constant, looming threat of violence, but unfortunately even that day is not the ugliest imaginable outcome of Trump's encouragement of violence.
There will, sad to say, surely be opportunities in the very near future to write about the possibility of Trump-directed violence on a widespread scale. Today, however, it is worth thinking about the ways in which Trump and his supporters create the threat of violence in normal people's daily lives, all in an effort to frighten people into silence or even to outright support "the boss." As the headline on this column suggests, the discussion will also involve an important incident that Senator Mitt Romney recently revealed and that raises an important question about what he should have done at the time.
In a Dorf on Law column last month, I referred to one of the most infamous examples of Trumpist intimidation of innocent people. Two women, a mother and daughter in Georgia, will probably never be able to collect the money that they won in a civil suit against Rudolph Giuliani, but they are well known for being wrongly accused of cheating against Trump in the 2020 election, only to see their lives threatened by angry people pounding on their doors, a barrage of death threats, and so on. They both had to go into hiding. The same thing has happened to state-level politicians, school board members, and on and on. And most of the victims of those threats will never even have a chance at civil redress, much less true justice.
At this point in Trump's process of self-revelation as a wannabe fascist, it is probably not even worth worrying about "Godwin's Law," which holds "that as an online discussion grows longer (regardless of topic or scope), the probability of a comparison to Nazis or Adolf Hitler approaches 1." In our current situation, it is not the online discussion that has grown longer but Trump's time in the public eye, meaning that a more apt version of that Law for present purposes would be something like this: "As people's exposure to Donald Trump's words and actions grows longer, the probability of a non-Trumpist concluding that Trump is a fascist approaches 1." That is, even many of the people who were for long periods of time clutching their pearls and saying that it was too extreme to call Trump the f-word have been reluctantly coming around to the realization that wishing the threat away is neither sensible nor a plan of action.
Nazi Germany's Brownshirts and Fascist Italy's Blackshirts were paramilitary groups (note: paramilitary, not military) that used believable threats of violence to squelch dissent, and the strategy for present-day fascists continues to be to make people too afraid to stand up and do the right thing. And now that the real rubber is hitting the road in his multi-jurisdictional legal morass, Trump's increasingly reckless and panicked response includes sending unmistakable signals to anyone who will listen to his request to (in Mobspeak) "take care of" troublesome people. (Switching back and forth between comparing Trump to a mob boss and to a fascist dictator is almost impossible to avoid.)
Thus, even though the exact wording of Trump's attack on General Mark Milley -- where Trump described something that Milley had done after the 2020 election as "an act so egregious that, in times gone by, the punishment would have been DEATH" (caps in Trump's original, as if that could somehow be in doubt) -- was not a direct call to violence today, that minimally plausible deniability is a joke. And sure enough, Trump supporters soon were saying out loud and into TV cameras that Milley should be executed.
Switching back to the mob boss trope, I could imagine Trump saying that, for example, he wants someone to "make sure Frankie Two-Sandwiches sleeps with the fishes" and then saying that he only meant that someone should buy Frankie a condo with an aquarium, but no one is fooled. His followers get the point.
It was not truly a surprise, then, that one of the more important news developments of this week was when the judge in a New York civil case -- again, a civil case, thus without the threat of jail time -- had to put a gag order on Trump. Why was that necessary? Because Trump had posted on social media the name (including middle initial, making it easier to track her down) and Instagram account of one of the judge's clerks. This is all in the shadow of the judges in Trump's criminal cases having to weigh how to allow Trump's lawyers to mount a constitutionally adequate defense without giving them information that Trump will use to put in danger the lives of witnesses, jurors, prosecutors, judges, and now even court staff.
Again, this kind of thuggish/Brownshirt intimidation is very different from larger scale violence. In some cases, nothing violent happens at all. But even in those situations with good outcomes -- fortunately, the two Georgia poll workers were not maimed or killed -- credible paramilitary-like threats of violence change people's behavior. The targets of intimidation change what they do without having been harmed because they believe the threats that Trump is inspiring his followers to make.
A few weeks ago, Mitt Romney's announcement that he would not run for a second term in the US Senate was timed to coincide with the release of an authorized biography of Romney. An excerpt from that biography was published in The Atlantic on September 13, and the airwaves and news columns were soon filled with encomiums for Romney's supposed courage, along with the rending of garments that his kind of supposedly honorable politics has become a thing of the past.
I might yet write in response to the insta-hagiographies of Romney, although I doubt that he will be important enough to write about again. (Here is a taste of the type of things that I would probably choose to discuss, if I were to return to the topic.) For present purposes, however, the pertinent revelation in The Atlantic piece (as quoted in The Washington Post, because the original is behind a paywall) is this:
[D]uring the Senate trial, [w]hen one senator, a member of leadership, said he was leaning toward voting to convict, the others urged him to reconsider. You can’t do that, Romney recalled someone saying. Think of your personal safety, said another. Think of your children. The senator eventually decided they were right.
Many people who have written books about Trump have been criticized for withholding juicy tidbits as a way to increase book sales, even though those tidbits were important information to the public. My question about Romney is whether he is guilty of one of the worst versions of that. It is one thing to say that, as Bob Woodward wrote in one of his exposes of Trump, that Trump knew early on about how bad Covid-19 would be. That Woodward sat on that information until after the 2020 election is (at the very least) arguably unethical and even antisocial. What about Romney?
Romney possessed information about something that was make-or-break in the very moment that he heard it, and it would become moot if he withheld it even by a day or two until after the Senate's acquittal vote. Why did he withhold it? One possibility is that Romney assumed that, even through his Republican colleagues in the Senate were going to give Trump a pass, Trump was politically cooked in any case. That, however, ignores the timeline, because now-deposed House Speaker Kevin McCarthy had made his infamous trip to Palm Beach to kiss Trump's ring two weeks before the Senate's impeachment trial vote. At a minimum, a reasonably prudent person should have been worried that maybe Trump's hold on Romney's party was not irretrievable.
Another possibility is that Romney thought that it would do no good to say publicly that some of his colleagues were voting out of fear for their lives and the lives of their loved ones. After all, would any of those senators have been willing to admit that they were not voting with honor and integrity? Maybe not, but maybe. After all, that was a moment when a group of senators could have joined together and gained safety in numbers. Each one felt scared and vulnerable, but a large enough vote to convict would have made everyone safer.
To put the point bluntly, however, what is the affirmative reason for Romney to be silent? Politeness? He knew in that moment that his colleagues were going to vote in sufficient numbers to acquit Trump. He knew that some of them were doing so out of fear. Had he said what he knew publicly and encouraged his colleagues to draw strength from each other, he might have changed enough votes, and thus changed history. We cannot know what would have happened if he had spoken up, but we do know -- and Romney knew at the time -- the certain consequences of his silence.
Moreover, even if Romney had acted but was unable to change the outcome in the Senate, we would have had this critical information 32 months ago. We would not have come out of the acquittal saying, "Oh well, I guess all but seven Republicans are still Trumpists." It is impossible to imagine that the narrative would not have changed in a helpful way, had Romney revealed what he knew. "Trump still has a base that scares Republicans into doing what he says, lest they lose a primary to a Trumpier candidate," is sad. "Trump has fanatical, violent supporters who scared United States senators into acquitting him, lest their wives and children be murdered," is in an entirely different category of terrible.
Even so, it is possible that none of that would have made a difference, that Trump's cult of personality would have us exactly where we are today, and that nothing mattered. What we do know, in any event, is that there is no longer any doubt that Trump and his supporters embrace threats and violence against everyone from Senators to regular citizens. I hope that the gag order works and that other judges will do the same. If so, maybe Trump can be prevented from putting more people's lives in danger. I am not, however, confident that it will work out that way.