Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) believes that some GOP leaders fear their Republican constituents will physically harm them or their family members if they publicly defy former President Donald Trump.
“There are deranged people among us,” he told McKay Coppins for a forthcoming biography, an excerpt of which was published in The Atlantic on Wednesday, shortly after Romney announced that he would not seek reelection. “It only takes one really disturbed person.”
Those fears are sadly justified. Over the last several years, far-right extremists have committed a wave of terrorist acts against Trump’s perceived enemies and other targets of an increasingly bloodthirsty right-wing media apparatus that is dedicated to whipping its audience into a frenzy. The right is raising the price of dissent, in effect creating a terrorist’s veto on U.S. public policy and criminal justice.
Romney points to the January 6 insurrection — in which a violent mob, summoned to Washington, D.C., by Trump and fueled by the election fraud lies of Fox News hosts and his other media allies, stormed the U.S. Capitol and sent Vice President Mike Pence and members of Congress assembled to certify Joe Biden’s election into hiding — as the trigger for “a new, more existential brand of cowardice,” in which members of Congress declined to support Trump’s impeachment out of fear for their lives.
Coppins writes of “the question” that Romney’s “confession begged: How long can a democracy last when its elected leaders live in fear of physical violence from their constituents?” But the threat to U.S. democracy is actually much deeper than the author and his subject describe. It is not only elected leaders but journalists, prosecutors, judges, election workers, bureaucrats, and random people who in recent years have faced threats of physical violence from right-wing extremists after becoming the targets of the right-wing media’s most dishonest and incendiary members.
The “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory that Satan-worshiping Democratic politicians were concealing a child sex trafficking ring beneath the D.C. pizzeria Comet Ping Pong nearly had a body count. Shortly after Trump’s 2016 election, a heavily armed fan of radio host Alex Jones’ rants on the subject walked into the restaurant and discharged a firearm several times while searching for tunnels.
While there is a long history of right-wing terrorism, the incident launched a new era in which right-wing commentators seeking money and power used increasingly demagogic language to target their political enemies — and Romney’s “deranged people among us” followed through with threats and violence.
- Fox hosts like Tucker Carlson devoted years to denouncing immigrants as invaders, mainstreaming the white nationalist conspiracy theory of a plot to use them to “replace” the current population, and urging viewers to take action while shooters in El Paso, Pittsburgh, and Buffalo unleashed massacres of American Hispanics, Jews, and Black people on the same premises.
- Trump’s vicious attacks on the press were echoed and encouraged by right-wing commentators, even as people using similar language issued death threats to media outlets and individual journalists and reporters were subjected not only to anti-press jeers and chants of “lock them up,” but to physical assaults at his rallies.
- Cesar Sayoc, a Trump superfan whose van was plastered with anti-media decals, mailed explosive devices to the offices of CNN, several Democratic officials, and other progressive leaders including George Soros, a frequent target of right-wing conspiracy theories, in October 2018. Sayoc pleaded guilty to an array of crimes and is currently serving a 20-year prison sentence.
- After Trump baselessly claimed that he had won the 2020 election but the results had been rigged against him through widespread fraud, his media allies went into overdrive to help him subvert democracy. Their campaign targeted election workers like Ruby Freeman and Shaye Moss, who subsequently testified to how harassment from right-wing conspiracy theorists had “turned my life upside down.” Such treatment has since become commonplace — the Justice Department says it has charged more than a dozen people over death threats to election workers, while a recent poll found “nearly one in three election officials have been harassed, abused, or threatened because of their job” and “more than one in five are concerned about being physically assaulted on the job in future elections.”
- Libraries, children’s hospitals, and teachers have received bomb threats and trans minors have been subjected to harassment after getting swept up in the right’s massive, bigoted, and despicable campaign to smear LGBTQ people as “grooming” children.
Each time violence followed the right’s invective, its propagandists responded by furiously defending their conduct, launching new “false flag” conspiracies to pin the blame elsewhere, or trying to sweep the mess under the rug.
The next year promises an escalation of right-wing rhetoric — and a potential for dire consequences — as criminal trials get underway for Trump and Biden’s son Hunter. Trump’s propagandists have described the investigations of his conduct and his four indictments in apocalyptic terms, comparing the FBI to the East German Stasi secret police, the United States to a “banana republic” or “fascist regime,” and Biden to Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. They have warned their audiences that “you” are the true target of these actions, urged them to take action, and contemplated civil war. At the same time, they’ve denounced the investigation of Hunter Biden for purportedly giving him special treatment.
Amid this furor, the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security warned about the prospect of violence against federal officials after the magistrate judge who signed off on the warrant to search Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence, as well as FBI agents, Attorney General Merrick Garland, and FBI Director Christopher Wray all received an uptick in death threats; an armed Trump supporter who had called for the murder of federal agents following the search attacked the FBI field office in Cincinnati, Ohio, and was later killed in a shoot-out with police; a woman was arrested and charged with threatening the judge overseeing one of Trump’s trials; and members of the grand jury that approved charges against Trump in Georgia received threats after their names and addresses were published online.
On Thursday morning, less than 24 hours after the publication of Romney’s remarks, NBC News reported that “prosecutors and FBI agents involved in the Hunter Biden investigation have been the targets of threats and harassment by people who think they haven’t been tough enough on the president’s son.”
As Romney noted, in the environment that Trump and his right-wing media allies have cultivated, “It only takes one really disturbed person.”