In new Time interview, Trump appears to green light MAGA media hyping political violence

The Trump-MAGA media feedback loop is setting the stage for vigilantism in 2024

Trump orange spotlight

Citation Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

Right-wing media figures have spent the last year hyping the potential for mass political violence and baselessly asserting the 2024 election will be stolen. In a new interview with Time magazine, former President Donald Trump appeared to give fuel to both of those trends.

In the interview, Trump refused to condemn or discourage any future violent actions by his supporters if he loses the general election in November. When asked by Time whether he was concerned about political violence following the election, Trump responded: “I think we're gonna have a big victory. And I think there will be no violence.” Time later followed up, asking, “What if you don’t win, sir?”

“Well, I do think we're gonna win,” Trump responded, adding, “I don't think they'll be able to do the things that they did the last time, which were horrible.”

“And if we don't win, you know, it depends,” he said. “It always depends on the fairness of an election. I don't believe they'll be able to do the things that they did the last time. I don't think they'll be able to get away with it.”

Trump has long pushed election denialism and is currently facing charges for attempting to overturn the results of the 2020 election, including attempting to prevent certification of the results during the riot at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. He has also been open in his embrace of street vigilantism, famously instructing far-right extremist gang the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” following large-scale anti-racist demonstrations in the summer of 2020.

Beyond Trump’s own comments, consumers of right-wing media have been fed a steady diet of commentary that normalizes political violence, making it appear inevitable. In one particularly clear example from March, BlazeTV’s Steve Deace said, “I think there will be violence after the election regardless of the outcome,” and wished that “Trump had acted the way we wanted him to in the summer of 2020” by cracking down harder on the left-wing protests, predicting that it “would have rallied people that were either on the fence and sick of all that crap or inspired his own base all the more.”

These right-wing fantasies about large-scale violence often take the form of claiming the United States is headed toward another civil war as a result of left-wing provocation.

Last August, on the same evening that Trump surrendered to authorities in Georgia on charges he’d acted to overturn the state’s 2020 election results, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin appeared on Newsmax.

“I think those who are conducting this travesty and creating this two-tiered system of justice and I want to ask them, ‘What the heck? Do you want us to be in civil war?’ because that's what's going to happen,” Palin said. “We're not going to keep putting up with this."

Palin agreed with the host that “we need to get angry,” adding, “We do need to rise up and take our country back.” 

The same month, Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk was asked a question about whether right-wing activists should form militias, and responded by warning that “the bad guys are trying to provoke us into a civil war.” He then advised the audience that “you need to have systems and backup plans of self-sovereignty [if], God forbid, our entire society falls apart and/or our government becomes even more tyrannical and authoritarian,” concluding, “That's why we have the Second Amendment."

In October, Daily Wire host Micheal Knowles argued that a judge’s decision to allow a challenge to Trump’s candidacy based on the 14th Amendment meant that “we are dangerously close to the conditions that we were at in 1860."

“And I'm not one of these catastrophists who says that we're always going to be on the brink of civil war, and we're all gonna — I'm certainly not encouraging civil war by any means,” Knowles said. “But it could happen. … Civil wars happen. And the liberals would appear to be cultivating the conditions to make it much more likely."

January saw right-wing media figures turn the civil war rhetoric on overdrive after the Supreme Court allowed the Biden administration to remove razor wire Texas state authorities had placed along the U.S.-Mexico border.

On his January 23 show, Kirk said that if Texas ignored the ruling, “some people would say, ‘Well, that's the seeds of a civil war,’” adding, “By the way, I'm all on board."

In the same episode, Kirk told his audience: “Native-born Americans, you better buy weapons, everybody. Have a lot of guns at your disposal. I would never leave your home without a weapon. It's the new country we live in. It is Mad Max. Biden is creating Mad Max. You're on your own."

The Daily Wire’s Matt Walsh argued that “the solution is obvious, which is that red state governors will need to ignore the Supreme Court,” warning ominously that “the last civil war was unimaginable until it wasn't. That was a lesson this country learned in the middle of the 19th century. And if the Biden administration is somehow still in office after this next election, then just as abruptly, we might have to learn it again.”

Walsh’s then-colleague Candace Owens similarly claimed, “We are edging very closely to a civil war."

Even when right-wing figures aren’t normalizing civil war rhetoric or rationalizing mass violence, they extoll the virtues of breaking the law on behalf of the MAGA movement.

In March, former Trump adviser Steve Bannon told attendees at a right-wing activists conference, “You have to be prepared to go to prison” in order “to take on the deep state.” Just days later, Kirk defended a Turning Point USA activist charged in the January 6 Capitol riot, calling the case “typical Soviet-style indictment BS” and promising, “I'm gonna keep on standing behind her.”

“These are modern day hostages that are being held by this regime,” he added.

In the Time interview, Trump said he would “absolutely” consider pardoning the more than 800 people who have been sentenced for their role in January 6, who he has also referred to as “hostages,” “political prisoners,” and “patriots.” (Earlier this month, a group of Proud Boys appeared outside a Trump rally in North Carolina, with one member holding a sign demanding the release of January 6 prisoners.)

Another key aspect of Trump’s Time interview is his false insistence that the 2020 election was fraudulent, and that the only way he could lose in November is also rigged against him.

Here again Trump has myriad allies in right-wing media. In January, Fox News was already casting doubt on the 2024 election, with host Laura Ingraham baseless claiming, “The Democrats are going to stop at nothing” to win, including trying “to game the system or yeah, maybe even cheat.”

Bannon frequently makes the same accusations. Just in the last few months, he’s said that Democrats need “phony fake voters” to win and claimed, “The only way they defeat Trump is they steal it.” In March, conspiracy theorist Alex Jones appeared on Bannon’s podcast and declared, “We know they are publicly trying to steal this election again.”

For his part, Kirk recently hosted an entire conference devoted to election denialism with the expressed purpose of “competing right up against” the Republican National Committee, which was holding a winter meeting in the hotel next door.

All of these comments together create a media environment where consumers of conservative news are prepared to reject the outcome of the November election if Trump loses. Those same audiences have been primed to expect — or potentially engage in — right-wing vigilantism following a Biden victory.

Last July, a poll from The Associated Press found that “only 22% of Republicans have high confidence that votes in the upcoming presidential election will be counted accurately compared to 71% of Democrats, underscoring a partisan divide fueled by a relentless campaign of lies related to the 2020 presidential election.” Separately, a March poll from PBS found that “28% of Republicans strongly agree or agree that Americans may have to resort to violence in order to get the country back on track.” (That number was 12% for Democratic voters.)

Trump and right-wing media are in a feedback loop, each feeding the other's fantasies about impending political violence and rigged elections. The Time interview makes clear that Trump will continue to pour fuel on this fire.