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‘A tinderbox’: How Trump’s amped-up words are making political violence more likely

University’s data suggests recent Capitol dust-ups were not ‘performative’

A supporter of Donald Trump wears a hat displaying a logo that is pro-guns and pro-Trump in Fort Dodge, Iowa, on Nov. 18.
A supporter of Donald Trump wears a hat displaying a logo that is pro-guns and pro-Trump in Fort Dodge, Iowa, on Nov. 18. (Jim Vondruska/Getty Images)

Donald Trump walked into Madison Square Garden earlier this month with purpose. Erected before him was a mixed martial arts ring surrounded by a tall steel cage.

How fitting.

The former president and 2024 GOP presidential primary front-runner appeared to be feeling like an “American Badass” — that very Kid Rock song was blaring over the MSG sound system as Trump’s entrance theme. He had just flown in from New Hampshire, where he delivered remarks in which he flaunted his tough-guy bona fides by calling his political and legal foes “vermin.” He pledged to lead an effort to “root out” all those Trump haters, should voters hand him a second term next November.

But a close look at Trump’s words during that Nov. 11 political rally in the Granite State shows how his penchant for extreme rhetoric is only ramping up. Historians have noted how the “vermin” reference mirrors the words of Germany’s Adolf Hitler and Italy’s Benito Mussolini.

Trump has always had a thing for hard-line leaders, be it Russia’s Vladimir Putin or China’s Xi Jingping or Hungary’s Viktor Orban. Recently, he even dubbed the leaders of the brutal terrorist group Hezbollah, whom President Joe Biden has warned against joining Hamas’ war with Israel, as “very smart.”

“We pledge to you that we will root out the communists, Marxists, fascists and the radical-left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country,” Trump said in New Hampshire. “The head of Hungary — very tough, strong guy — Viktor Orban, he didn’t allow millions of people to invade his country.” Orban resisted European Union migration proposals, even warning during a 2018 election of “ghettos and no-go zones” — language that could have come straight from the mouth of the American president at the time.

More and more, Trump appears agitated by his court appearances and emboldened by his massive leads in 2024 GOP primary polls, which he bragged in a recent social media post are the “BEST EVER!” For instance, take Sunday, when he threw his full backing behind an Argentinian politician who rode a Trump-like populist conservative platform to become that country’s next president. Javier Milei, notably, campaigned with a chain saw, vowing to cut the size of government and how much it spends.

“Congratulations to Javier Milei on a great race for President of Argentina. The whole world was watching! I am very proud of you,” Trump wrote, using a modified version of his own political slogan, an example of how Trumpism applies in other countries: “You will turn your Country around and truly Make Argentina Great Again!

To be sure, Trump is looking for a fight — and so are many members of the Republican Party he largely has recast in his own image, voice and moods.

“There’s evidence of a real erosion of norms and growing support for violence in the body politic since January. What has happened since the first Trump indictments is … the political rhetoric in Congress and by Trump has been growing and growing,” said Robert Pape, who studies political violence at the University of Chicago. “I don’t think you could easily separate Trump’s rhetoric from that of members of Congress.”

Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker, a Democrat, said Sunday that he sees troubling historical parallels. “Let me just be clear,” he told MSNBC. “In Germany in the 1930s, people that they didn’t want to have power, people that they wanted to separate and segregate, they began calling them immigrants, even people who had been in Germany for generations.

“And this is a way to begin to segregate people, and then eventually, at least what happened in Germany, is that they turned it into a way to almost dehumanize. And then they did, in fact, dehumanize and kill people,” Pritzker added. “I don’t know where it’s going with Donald Trump. What I can tell you is that the things that he talks about are frightening to those of us who know the history of Europe in the 1930s and 40s.”

Trump’s amped-up rhetoric at political rallies, in television and other interviews and on his social media platform could become a political and cultural Molotov cocktail, some officials and experts have warned. Also included are his years-old, baseless warnings that federal and state officials have hit him with 91 felony charges because they next plan to come after regular American citizens, mostly registered Republicans.

That’s why Democrats like Pritzker, and some Republicans or former GOP members, have warned of potential political violence as Trump increasingly mixes those claims with his stated desire for revenge against those who have prosecuted him and former loyalists who have flipped on him — or even criticized him on the cable news programs he reportedly still devours like Diet Cokes.

“I’m deeply concerned about his predilection for revenge and what that will mean for, you know, groups of people that didn’t support him in the 2024 election if, in fact, he gets elected,” the Illinois chief executive said.

Consider that Trump is not the lone Republican spoiling for a fight. Suddenly, it seems like the GOP congressional delegation is doing its best impression of the WWE. Many sound like sports entertainment performers, cutting angry and insulting “promos” about each other.

But how long before Capitol Hill needs its own MMA ring and cage so GOP lawmakers can throw down against each other — or anyone who dares criticize them or Trump’s MAGA movement?

Tennessee GOP Rep. Tim Burchett alleged last week that former Speaker Kevin McCarthy whacked him with an elbow in a crowded Capitol hallway. Those two are foes from conservatives’ move in October to vacate the speaker’s chair, at the time occupied by McCarthy, a California Republican.

Over in the Senate, GOP Sen. Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma, a former mixed martial arts fighter, last week challenged Teamsters President Sean O’Brien to a fight during a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing. The duo didn’t appear all that concerned, ironically, about one another’s health; their words and tones suggested they wanted to vacate each other. Over a Twitter feud. (Obligatory reminder: It’s now formally called X.)

Political and policy reporters roaming the Hill also must prepare to serve as ringside fight analysts.

‘A tinderbox’

Senate HELP Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., yelled at Mullin to sit down as he stood up to throw hands with O’Brien. “You’re a United States senator. Act like one,” Sanders roared. It sounded like he was scolding a child.

Sarah Feinberg, a former federal official, on Wednesday called the elbow-throwing and fight-challenging scenes “performative” and “embarrassing.”

“It’s not about you. It’s actually about your constituents. It’s not about looking like a man in [a] Senate committee hearing,” she told CNN. “It’s actually just about getting stuff done.”

But the bigger risk is those dust-ups were not “performative” at all, and that this MAGA-fueled fighting mood extends to the broader right-leaning public. That risk would only be increased further if Trump continues borrowing language from some of the world’s most brutal — taboo, even — historical figures.

It’s no secret the United States is awash in firearms. Republican support for a modest 2022 federal gun violence law dropped nearly 20 percentage points in the year after it was passed by both chambers and signed into law by Biden, from 49 percent to 32 percent in late August, according to an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research survey.

Asked if they agree with the statement “American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save the country,” 33 percent of Republicans answered yes in a Public Religion Research Institute poll released Oct. 25. That’s up 5 percentage points from 2021.

A full 86 percent of Republicans surveyed by PRRI called Biden a threat to America’s democracy. While a higher number of Democrats, 91 percent, said the same about Trump, there is a notable difference in their collective mood vis-à-vis Republican voters.

Democrats weren’t nearly as prone to be in a fighting mood, with 13 percent saying “patriots” may soon need to resort to “violence in order to save the country.”

But Pape, citing data compiled by his university’s Chicago Project on Security and Threats, said he is “seeing a rise in the support of political violence on both the right and the left,” as well as a “change in the rhetoric on both right and the left.”

“The water looks calm on the surface, but there’s turbulence just under the waterline. And, anymore, it doesn’t take much to set it off,” he added. “Where we’re heading is a tinderbox.”

Editor-at-Large John T. Bennett, a former White House correspondent, writes a weekly column for Roll Call, parts of which often first appear in the subscription-based CQ Afternoon Briefing newsletter.

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