“PROTEST, TAKE OUR NATION BACK!”
“WE MUST SAVE AMERICA! PROTEST, PROTEST, PROTEST!!!”
So ended two posts from former President Donald Trump, who has been posting incessantly — often in all caps — on his Truth Social page for the last few days. The messages have been flowing ever since Trump announced on Saturday that he believes he will be arrested in New York on Tuesday.
But while the former president calls on his supporters to gather in protest at his prosecution, that message seems to be falling on deaf — or at least unwilling — ears. Three days after Trump’s desperate pleas, online support for public protests remains unfocused, disorganized and muted, according to experts who monitor far-right extremists online.
Rather than organizing protests, prominent Trump supporters online are instead driving a different narrative: That any public events are a “trap” set by law enforcement, and that attending any events will be counterproductive and will likely result in protesters being arrested.
That reaction fits a pattern, experts say: Broadly, extremist movements are often whipsawed, with aggressive activity followed by pushback from law enforcement, resulting in withdrawal as remaining followers grow paranoid.
The Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the Capitol, which was preceded by a call to action at a Trump rally, has led to nearly 1,000 prosecutions. That offers even the most ardent supporter tangible evidence that pro-Trump fervor can lead to jail time — even as some conspiracy theorists continue to claim those Jan. 6 rioters were somehow framed.
And unlike Jan. 6, details on this latest rallying cry are scant. With no known time and place for a Trump arrest — and the possibility that he won’t even be arrested, that his call to action is some kind of ruse — there remains no central target for his supporters this time around.
“We’re seeing folks cautioning people about engaging in protests out of fear that it’s a trap by the government,” said Oren Segal, Vice President, of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. “We’re also seeing some people urging people to protest despite that risk, with some calls for violence. But overall, there is no sort of cohesive movement in terms of where these protests should happen.”
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Will you protest? Many say no
In one pro-Trump channel on the encrypted messaging service Telegram devoted to the QAnon conspiracy, a moderator asked the channel’s 212,000 subscribers whether they would protest if Trump is arrested Tuesday. Overwhelmingly, the comments in response — almost 2,000 of them — were in the negative.
“There is no point in playing into their hands. The rioters will be paid bad actors not Trump supporters. We know what is coming,” wrote one user.
On Trump’s social media site, Truth Social, British far-right provocateur Paul Joseph Watson polled his 218,000 followers with the question: “Is the potential protest against Trump being arrested a J6-style trap?”
Of the 1,580 responses, 85% voted “Yes.”
And on Twitter, Ali Alexander, one of the main pushers of the “Stop The Steal” movement, which claimed the 2020 election was actually won by Trump, warned his more than 175,00 followers:
“If you protest in New York City, you will be in the single most hostile jurisdiction in the United States. There is no law and order. You have no liberty or rights there. You will be jailed or worse.”
‘It’s a trap’ becomes a theme
The notion that pro-Trump protests are traps laid by law enforcement has been around for years, said Megan Squire, deputy director for data analytics at the Southern Poverty Law Center. But in the last few days, that narrative has dominated online discussion about whether to come out in public and support Trump if he is arrested, she said.
Squire said she has started a research folder called “It’s a trap” where she is storing screen-shot examples of this messaging she finds online. The sense of paranoia among these Trump supporters echoes the concerns felt by white supremacists in the months after the deadly Charlottesville rally in 2017, Squire said. Online, people are being extremely cautious about what they say, and what they plan, she said.
“It’s the natural thing. It’s the thing they always do,” Squire said. “They get in trouble, they get looked at, they get scrutinized, they get horrible media attention, a lot of legal attention, and they say the thing that pops into their head, which is ‘Retreat. Go back into your mom’s basement and don’t come out.'”
No central focus for protests
Complicating the efforts of any Trump supporters who do wish to protest in support of him is a lack of any central focus for their movement.
On Jan. 6, 2021, the tens of thousands of Trump supporters who traveled to Washington D.C. had a clear target: The U.S. Capitol, where the 2020 election results were being certified.
The latest call to action lacks the same clear goal. This time around, it’s unclear whether to envision a protest attempting to stop the work of investigators in New York, prevent an arrest Trump’s home in Florida, or take action somewhere else.
By Monday evening, protests had been announced for locations ranging from the parking lot of an In-n-Out burger restaurant in Orange County, California, to a location to be defined in New York City. But none of these events appeared to be attracting enough attention to draw large crowds, experts said.
The biggest fear: Individual or small groups of extremists
Experts who monitor extremism cautioned that the biggest danger to public safety that could come out of Trump’s escalating rhetoric probably doesn’t involve large crowds of protestors. Far more concerning are small groups, or individual domestic terrorists who might be inspired to take action by Trump’s call for protests, they said.
That’s happened before.
After Trump made several fiery speeches about an “invasion” at the U.S.-Mexico border, a far-right extremist killed 23 people in an El Paso WalMart. After the FBI raided Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate and Trump railed online about the bureau, a man attacked the FBI’s Cincinnati field office with a rifle and another man was arrested after an armed stand-off for threatening FBI agents on social media.
With the Charlottesville rally and Jan. 6 being obvious outliers, protests — even those held by far-right extremists — aren’t usually where Americans are injured or killed by individual domestic terrorists. That usually happens in attacks driven by escalating political rhetoric, and that’s what worries experts like Segal.
“I’m more concerned about a Nancy Pelosi-husband-style attack,” he said, referring to the October attack on Senator Pelosi’s husband Paul by a man wielding a hammer. “I’m more concerned about a Pittsburgh or El Paso style attack than I am about some organized protests that leads to violence.”
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