Right-wing news outlets have a rage-based business model, converting unhinged rants to readers and revenues. But there are few precedents, in intensity or duration, for the frenzy that has consumed Fox News and other bastions of the MAGA media since the FBI carried out a search warrant at Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence on Monday. Their incendiary commentary, which posits that a criminal probe into the former president is intrinsically corrupt and part of an attack on his voters, is courting a paroxysm of political violence.
The FBI executed a warrant signed by a federal magistrate judge, reportedly seeking classified material that Trump illegally removed from the White House at the end of his term. Pundits on the right could be trying to lower the temperature by telling their audiences that there’s much we don’t know yet; a legal process is playing out; and Trump, like any American, is subject to the rule of law.
Instead, Fox and other right-wing outlets describe the search as “the worst attack on this republic in modern history,” part of a “preemptive coup” to prevent Trump’s reelection, and a sign the country is now a “tyranny.” They say the FBI is acting like “the East German Stasi in the Cold War” and the Nazi “Gestapo,” and call its agents part of a “lawless criminal organization” that “planted evidence,” bugged Trump’s bedroom, and may be planning his “assassination.”
And they are quick to tell their viewers that they should fear their own persecution in the wake of the search. According to right-wing outlets, “the real target of this investigation is you” and its perpetrators are “trying to show all of us that we'll be destroyed if we fight them” because they are “at war with the American people.”
“If this is what they're able to do to the former president of the United States, think about what they could do to you, to anybody in America,” warned Lara Trump, Fox contributor and Trump’s daughter-in-law.
That paranoia is everywhere within the right-wing bubble, and some are calling for direct action in response. On Fox, Jesse Watters suggested that “honest Americans” would respond to the search by getting “out on the streets” against the “corrupt government.” According to the network’s Will Cain, a “permanent national split” – in other words, another civil war – may be needed to rectify the situation. The militia-linked radio host Pete Santilli, meanwhile, argued that it may be necessary for MAGA supporters to “arm up and surround Mar-a-Lago to protect it, to protect life, liberty, and property.”
What might someone do if they are ensconced in the right-wing media bubble, trust these personalities, take their views seriously, and come to believe their claims that federal agents are Nazis waging war on the American public and threatening their own safety and the safety of their families? How far might they go?
This is not an idle question – extremism researchers are sounding the alarm about the prospect of pro-Trump violence. On Wednesday, Vice reported that “far-right extremists on pro-Donald Trump message boards and social networks are making violent, antisemitic threats” against the judge who reportedly signed off on the search warrant. FoxNews.com reported the same day that “FBI agents, as well as U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland and FBI Director Chris Wray, are experiencing an uptick in death threats” following the search.
“The posts on these pro-Trump forums tonight are as violent as I've seen them since before January 6th. Maybe even moreso,” NBC News’ Ben Collins reported on Monday night.
Collins’ comment in particular points to the risks Fox and its brethren are courting. We’ve seen over the years that when the right-wing media riles up its audience enough, the consequences can be dire. When they spent weeks after the 2020 election championing Trump’s false claims of voter fraud and warning their audiences that they would lose their country if his lies were not vindicated, the result was a violent mob of thousands Trump had summoned to Washington, D.C., storming the U.S. Capitol, assaulting scores of law enforcement officers, and threatening the continuation of our democratic system.
What conservative pundits appear to have learned from that deadly debacle is that they will face no consequences for inciting mob violence. No one seems to have lost their job or their audience for unduly inflaming their viewers. They correctly assume that they are under no restraints as they stoke fear and rage to turn profits and bolster the political power of the Republican Party so it can carry out its goals of cutting taxes for rich people and banning abortion. And that means that they may be pushing the country once more toward the precipice.