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Trump Loves to Play With Fire

To be a Republican politician in the age of Trump is to live under the threat of violence from his most fanatical and aggressive followers.

Senator Mitt Romney of Utah hired personal security for himself and his family at a cost of $5,000 a day to guard against threats on their lives after he voted to convict the former president and remove him from office for his role in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. After he voted to impeach President Donald Trump in the House of Representatives in the same case, the former representative Peter Meijer of Michigan purchased body armor as a precaution against the threats on his life. Republicans who voted against Representative Jim Jordan — a staunch Trump ally — for House speaker during last year’s leadership standoff received death threats targeting both themselves and their families.

It’s not only Republicans in Congress, either. Republican lawmakers and election officials in critical swing states like Georgia, Arizona and Wisconsin have received threats on their lives for following the law and rejecting Trump’s demands to find or throw out votes in the last presidential election. And there have been more recent threats as well, leveled against those officials in the political, legal and criminal justice system who have tried to hold Trump accountable for his actions.

On Sunday, an unknown provocateur filed a false report to police of a shooting at the home of Judge Tanya S. Chutkan, who is overseeing the Jan. 6-related criminal case against the former president. The goal of this tactic, called “swatting,” is for police to react with force on the assumption that someone’s life might be in danger. Jack Smith, the federal special counsel who is leading multiple criminal investigations into Trump, was also the victim of swatting. So was Shenna Bellows, the Maine secretary of state who removed the former president from the state primary ballot.

Although no one, so far, has been physically harmed, these threats have had an effect. First and foremost, as Zack Beauchamp notes in a perceptive piece for Vox, they work to “discipline elected Republicans — to force them to toe whatever line the Trumpists want them to walk, or else.”

It stands to reason that threats of violence kept more Republicans from voting to impeach Trump in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 attack. In fact, Romney confirmed as much. In all likelihood, threats have also worked to suppress the growth of a meaningful anti-Trump faction within the Republican Party. It’s hard, under normal circumstances, to take a stand against the leader of your political party. It is even more difficult, as well as frightening, to do so when the cost of your opposition is a threat to your life or your family.

This type of threat, directed internally against dissidents as much as externally toward rivals, is certainly not unique in American history. It has at least one noteworthy antecedent.

In the aftermath of the Civil War — when political allegiances were up for grabs in much of the former Confederacy — opponents of Black suffrage, Black governance and the Republican Party used violence and intimidation to dissuade and discipline those whites who either contemplated cooperation or had already reconciled themselves to the new order.

There is also a parallel to draw with the present in the way that this and other forms of Reconstruction-era violence interacted with the political system. “The objective was not simply to destroy the Republican governments by attacking and dispersing their supporters,” the historian Michael Perman noted in a 1991 essay on the subject, “but to enable the Democrats to regain power by winning elections. Ironically, the intention was to use violent and illegal means to win power legitimately, through the electoral process.”

You can get a good illustration of what this looked like in the historian George C. Rable’s account of the 1875 Mississippi statewide elections, in his 1984 book “But There Was No Peace: The Role of Violence in the Politics of Reconstruction.” On Election Day in one county, Rable points out, Democratic partisans “placed an old cannon on a hill ominously aimed toward the polls.”

You should think of the intimidation and death threats — along with Trump’s recent warning that there will be “bedlam in the country” if he’s disqualified from the ballot — as a more modern cannon on a hill, ominously aimed toward the polls.

The former president is no longer in a position to try to subvert an election outcome using the power of the federal government. But Trump can try, whether he is the nominee or not, to use the fervor of his followers and acolytes to tilt the playing field in his direction. He can use the threat of violence to make officials and ordinary election workers think twice about their decisions. And he can use the example of those Republicans who have crossed him as a warning to wavering lawmakers — to anyone who resists the force of his will.

The story we like to tell about American democracy is that, for the most part, our experiment in self-government has been characterized by restraint and nonviolence more than the reverse. The opposite is true, of course; violence is deeply entwined with the American experience of democracy.

But there are times when the violence is more pervasive than not, when the conflicts are more acute. And the thing to keep in mind is that political violence doesn’t simply wind down of its own accord. There is almost always a settlement. There is almost always a winner. The violent campaign against Reconstruction ended with the so-called Redemption of the South — with the defeat of Southern Republicans and the victory of counter-revolutionaries and recalcitrant ex-confederates.

And if there is one thing we know about Donald Trump, it’s that he’ll do pretty much anything not to lose.

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