There won’t be another Jan. 6 now, no matter what happens to Trump

Experts are worried that America could see another display of political violence on par with the Capitol riot if the Supreme Court disqualifies Donald Trump from the Colorado ballot. While rooted in legitimate concerns about the prevalence of political violence in the U.S., these worries overestimate Trump’s current abilities to command large crowds — let alone inspire people to inflict mass violence on our democracy. But they also under-account for the erosion in public safety and health that has occurred since the Capitol riot via a steady drip of smaller acts of political violence.

Since the Capitol riot and the thousands of arrests and criminal charges that followed, Trump’s ability to speak rowdy protests into existence has severely diminished. And the sorts of indicators that signal plausible mass mobilizations are not presenting themselves in our current political environment.

After Jan. 6, 2021, Trump’s supporters showed less willingness to show up en masse at his request. Though the former president has called on his supporters to protest on his behalf in Michigan, New York and Florida, the kinds of large crowds seen on Jan. 6 have not materialized. Journalists have sometimes outnumbered protesters at these events.

Trump’s ability to draw protesters has been greatly undermined by narratives that his supporters online and in partisan media have concocted since the Capitol riot. These days, MAGA supporters harbor myriad paranoias and misgivings from the fallout of the Capitol riot that often undermine attempts to rally before they meaningfully begin. Whether it’s for fear of federal law enforcement lurking, ready to entrap them for violent plots, or disillusions that Trump will rescue them from potential legal peril, his rowdiest supporters no longer feel confident they will be able to act with impunity.

If the Supreme Court decides that Trump cannot appear on 2024 ballots, it is plausible that some of his supporters will appear armed at protests, especially at the state houses where he is taken off the ballot. Threats against individuals who played a role in the decision-making process — including lawyers, judges and elected officials — are almost certain.

But another Jan. 6 type of attack? Don’t count on it.

Yet such less-climactic displays of political violence are eroding our democracy drip by drip. While the crowd at the Capitol has dispersed, Trump’s ability to direct violence for political ends continues.

After the FBI raided Mar-a-Lago to retake classified documents in August, Trump fumed on Truth Social. The next day an enraged and armed supporter attacked the FBI’s Cincinnati office. On Christmas Eve, Trump railed against the Department of Justice’s special council Jack Smith; on Christmas Day, Smith’s family home was swatted. Weeks later, Trump attacked a judge overseeing a case against him in New York; 12 hours later, the judge’s home was subject to a bomb threat. The former president similarly unleashed his violent supporters on multiple election officials who refused to support his attempt to overturn the vote in 2020.

But Trump’s use of violence is broader than these personal targets. More than 40 percent of state legislators have been threatened in the last three years. Women and minorities face more intense threats, so unsurprisingly half of female state legislators are considering no longer serving in public office.

Election officials, who once toiled in obscurity to make our country’s elections happen, are now threatened so frequently that the Justice Department created a special task force to address them. A Brennan Center survey found that one in six elections officials reports being threatened, half in person, leading to an exodus of experience from the profession. In Arizona, where right-wing claims of fraud continued through 2022, 98 percent of residents will have an election official who is new to the job.

As Trump continues to run for office, worse is likely. The dehumanizing tenor of his campaign is likely to cause a further increase in hate crimes, which rose during his first campaign and never fell, now peaking at their highest point in the 21st century. Threats of violence against journalists have been a feature of his campaign rallies since 2016.

Trump has promised to wield the power of the government to persecute his political opposition. His exploration of using the Insurrection Act to overturn the 2020 election so concerned the military that all 10 living former secretaries of Defense published an unprecedented op-ed against its use. But now, the mainstream conservative establishment has signed on to a plan that would effectively clear out resistance to schemes like these inside federal agencies by firing tens of thousands of federal workers and replacing them with loyalists. There’s talk again of deploying the military to corral migrants, which would also catch unsuspecting American citizens caught without papers and mistaken for undocumented immigrants.

Although another mass violent protest seems unlikely now, Trump and his supporters are certain to unleash other forms of political violence in the future. Those standing watch for another event on the scale of the Capitol riot are misunderstanding the problem — searching for a heart attack and missing the fatal cancer spreading through our body politic.

Rachel Kleinfeld is a senior fellow of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where she advises philanthropists, government leaders and private actors internationally on how to stop political violence and how declining democracies can rebound. Jared Holt is senior research analyst at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue.

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