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Trump's imaginary return to the White House could cause actual real world violence

This nonsense about a Trump return to the Oval Office would be at least mildly amusing if it weren’t so dangerous.
Photo illustration: Image of a man screaming at a rally inside a phone repeating and spiraling.
Anjali Nair / MSNBC; Getty Images

Friday the 13th, already a day associated with bad luck, brought more misfortune than normal for believers in conspiracy theories. That’s because, contrary to what some delusional diehards thought, former President Donald Trump wasn't reinstated as chief executive. (Unless he did so secretly and just hasn’t gotten around to telling us yet, but that doesn’t seem like his style.)

Contrary to what some delusional diehards thought, former President Donald Trump wasn't reinstated as chief executive.

This nonsense about a Trump return to the Oval Office would be at least mildly amusing if it weren’t so dangerous. And the Department of Homeland Security agrees.

As first reported by ABC News, DHS issued a bulletin Aug. 6 to its state and local partners warning that the agency’s intelligence analysts have observed “ an increasing but modest level of activity online" by people who are calling for violence in response to baseless claims of 2020 election fraud and related to the conspiracy theory that former President Donald Trump will be reinstated.”

Significantly, it’s the “violence” part that has grabbed the attention of federal authorities and prompted DHS to alert the broader law enforcement community. "Some conspiracy theories associated with reinstating former President Trump have included calls for violence if desired outcomes are not realized,” the bulletin reportedly stated.

NBC News’ Ken Dilanian reported that a DHS spokesman told him that the department is “currently in a heightened terrorism-related threat environment” and that “DHS is aware of previous instances of violence associated with the dissemination of disinformation, false narratives and conspiracy theories about the 2020 election.” A second DHS official told NBC News that the agency is “concerned about calls to violence” in some of the theories that have made their way from obscure internet forums to the more mainstream online gathering places.

A deceived group of people turning violent when their imagined outcome never materializes is of course what we saw on Jan. 6.

A deceived group of people turning violent when their imagined outcome never materializes is of course what we saw on Jan. 6 — but the problem goes back further than that. Daily Beast reporter Kelly Weill explained last December that Trump conspiracy theorists’ cult-like qualities mean yet another missed prophecy should have us concerned:

“Psychologist and author Robert Lifton uses the term 'forcing the end' to describe efforts to push a prophecy into reality. In his book 'Destroying the World to Save It,' Lifton describes a series of cults that initially believed Armageddon would happen naturally, without human intervention. But when significant dates came and went without revelation, and the groups perceived themselves to be under attack, members took drastic actions: mass suicides in the cases of the Heaven’s Gate and Peoples Temple cults, and mass murder in the case of the Manson family and Japan’s Aum Shinrikyo cult.”

So how did we get to the point where an impossibility — the reinstatement of a president who lost a duly certified election — premised on a lie that there was unchecked election fraud has law enforcement on high alert? Well, let’s start with the losing candidate himself. Trump has reportedly been telling people that he’s coming back to power in August. But where did he get the idea — and why is 30 percent of the GOP falling for it?

QAnon quackery is central to the reinstatement delusion. Attorney Sydney Powell helped feed that fantasy at a recent QAnon conference where she matter-of-factly claimed Trump can just simply be reinstated. Meanwhile, Mike Lindell, the wealthy purveyor of MyPillow, thinks he may have given the August date specifically to Trump. Lindell has publicly proclaimed his August prediction on Steve Bannon’s podcast, repeatedly on television, at conferences and with anyone who will listen.

And why Aug. 13? Well, it’s challenging to nail down a constantly moving conspiracy target, but one theory is that many people believed that the “audit” of election results in Maricopa County, Arizona, would be done on or about Aug. 13. That’s as good a guess as any; as of yet, we’ve not heard anything on that from Cyber Ninjas, the scammers searching for watermarks, bamboo fibers and secretly folded ballots in Arizona.

Trump continues to fuel the reinstatement conspiracy, and he’s fattening his campaign coffers in the process. That kind of money has to be spent on something, and it appears Trump intends to use some of it to pay for rallies across the country, where, of course, he can pump the promise of a return to pump cash from his fans.

His next rally is coming up on Aug. 21, in a field somewhere in Cullman, Alabama. I expect the rally to be filled with sly and perhaps cryptic references to Trump’s “imminent” return for the cheering adherents who share the fantasy. It’s that kind of following — and what they’re planning and posting online — that has DHS and law enforcement concerned.

Trump continues to fuel the reinstatement conspiracy, and he’s fattening his campaign coffers in the process.

For example, U.S. Capitol Police are closely monitoring plans for a “Justice for January 6” rally on the Capitol grounds set for Sept. 18. That rally is led by a political group called “Look Ahead America,” which is run by the former director of data and strategy for the Trump campaign and peddles the idea that the hundreds of people arrested for the Jan. 6 riot are “political prisoners.” ("A Telegram channel dedicated to freeing 'illegally imprisoned patriots' has amassed over 12,000 subscribers since it was created on July 22,” Vice News reports.)

There’s nothing wrong with exercising free speech rights in support of your cause. But activity on known extremist social media sites, and lately more mainstream ones, is concerning, Chris Sampson, chief of research for the Terror Asymmetrics Project on Strategy, Tactics and Racial Ideologies, a defense research group, told me:

“The same people who pushed the Jan. 6 attack are the same people pushing current conspiracy theories that say, 'They stole the election from you,' 'Ashli Babbitt was murdered,' calls for violence against vaccine locations and calls insurrectionists 'political prisoners.' The participants of the Jan. 6 attack remain focused on exacting revenge and their leaders continue to bait their anger for financial and status gain. While some followers have become disillusioned with the game, many others have become more focused and I expect we will see small bursts of violence from the diehard believers following multiple narratives.”

Sampson also noted that one of the lead instigators and spouters of dangerous rhetoric is former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn. On Aug. 1, Flynn posted this on his Telegram account: “Dear patriots, we will win and that is a FACT. This time we are stronger than ever and we learned to be more careful. One lost battle doesn’t mean we’ve lost the war.”

The final troubling variable is the elevation of Babbitt, killed by a police officer during the attack on the Capitol, into a martyr whose death must be avenged. The Proud Boys have issued a “challenge coin” inscribed with the word “vengeance,” and all but canonizing Babbitt. Trump himself is also pushing this narrative. In a statement this week, Trump called for retribution against the officer who shot Babbitt, raging: “The Radical Left haters cannot be allowed to get away with this. There must be justice!”

There “must be justice” indeed. That justice is playing out within our legal system with the arrests of those who committed violence and security breaches on Jan. 6. The kind of justice that violent extremists are chatting about online isn’t justice at all — it’s vigilante domestic terrorism. Law enforcement better be ready for it.