Over the weekend, the New York Times and the Washington Post published lengthy articles on the threat to American democracy posed by election deniers and an increasingly unrepresentative electoral system. Both pieces were well worth reading, but they didn’t focus on a more immediate threat to democratic values and the rule of law: Donald Trump’s apparent attempts to publicly intimidate federal prosecutors who are investigating efforts to overturn the 2020 election and his failure to return classified documents to the National Archives and Records Administration.
At a campaign rally in Youngstown, Ohio, on Saturday night, for the Republican Senate candidate J. D. Vance, Trump played background music that the Times described as “all but identical” to a song associated with the QAnon right-wing conspiracy movement. Many people in the crowd responded with a one-armed salute, with their index finger raised, that reminded some observers of Nazi rallies. Will Bunch, a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, said the rally “should terrify you.” And it came days after Trump had reposted on his social-media platform, Truth Social, a doctored image of himself wearing a Q lapel pin overlaid with the words “THE STORM is COMING”—a QAnon meme that refers to a moment when Trump supposedly returns to power and punishes his enemies. This reposting wasn’t a one-off. According to an analysis conducted by the Associated Press and published last week, “Of nearly 75 accounts Trump has reposted on his Truth Social profile in the past month, more than a third of them have promoted QAnon by sharing the movement’s slogans, videos or imagery.”
What’s going on? One possibility is that Trump has finally lost what remained of his judgment and gone full tilt to a place where many leading Democrats are Satan-worshipping pedophiles, the coronavirus is a Chinese bioweapon, and J.F.K., Jr., is alive. A more likely theory, put forward by the Post’s Philip Bump, is that Trump is effectively asking QAnon to “stand back and stand by” for his 2024 election campaign, just as, during a September, 2020, Presidential debate, he asked the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.” That sounds plausible. But it seems at least equally possible that Trump is motivated by a more immediate concern—the multiple state and federal investigations of his conduct—and that he’s signalling to prosecutors that he won’t go quietly, so they had better beware.
A couple of days before his appearance in Ohio, Trump was interviewed by Hugh Hewitt, a conservative radio host, who asked him a series of questions about a possible indictment, including whether it would prevent him from running again for President. Here is that part of the transcript:
When Hewitt warned Trump “that the legacy media will say you’re attempting to incite violence with that statement,” Trump replied, “That’s not, that’s not inciting. I’m just saying what my opinion is. I don’t think the people of this country would stand for it.”
As always, Trump gave himself deniability: Hey, shucks, I’m just offering my two cents on the issues of the day. But, if he’s not directly inciting his followers, QAnon enthusiasts among them, to violence, he is certainly telling them, at every opportunity, that an outrageous and unprecedented miscarriage of justice is already taking place. “They’ve weaponized the Department of Justice and F.B.I.,” Trump said to Hewitt. In his Youngstown speech, he referred to “the unhinged persecution of me and my staff.” On Monday, he posted on Truth Social, “Arrived in Florida last night and had a long and detailed chance to check out the scene of yet another government ‘crime’, the FBI’s Raid and Break-In of my home, Mar-a-Lago. . . . the place will never be the same. It was ‘ransacked,’ and in far different condition than the way I left it. Many Agents – And they didn’t even take off their shoes in my bedroom. Nice!!!”
The Times has reported that Trump has been looking for a new legal team to defend him if he does get indicted, but his first order of business seems to be to try to delay such a filing. To this end, he’s found a useful ally in U.S. District Court Judge Aileen M. Cannon, who has slowed the Justice Department’s inquiry into Trump’s handling of classified documents by appointing a special master to review the materials that the government seized from Mar-a-Lago. But Trump and his aides know that this delay will be a temporary one. Judge Cannon urged the special master to complete his work by the end of November. After that, the Department is expected to finish up its investigation and decide whether to press charges.
Doubtless, it will weigh the evidence carefully before making a decision. But, in whipping up his supporters, moving closer to QAnon, and claiming that the American people wouldn’t stand for an indictment, Trump is reminding Attorney General Merrick Garland and his colleagues that the stakes are very high. And that, even if some of the candidates he has endorsed in the midterms are lagging in the polls, and even though there reportedly were many empty seats at his Youngstown rally, he still has a mass movement that is fanatically loyal to him, and which has already demonstrated, on January 6, 2021, that it contains elements willing to resort to violence on his behalf. He doesn’t have to say all this out loud. It is self-evident.
Garland has repeatedly stated that no one is above the law, a message that he reaffirmed in a speech over the weekend at a naturalization ceremony on Ellis Island, where he added that the rule of law “is fragile, it demands constant effort and vigilance.” In the coming months, Trump, his desperation growing, will likely seek to test the system to the point of breakage, just as he did after November, 2020. Defenders of democracy and the rule of law, regardless of their political affiliation, had better be prepared. ♦