Just hours after federal agents entered Mar-a-Lago on August 8 to seize highly classified national security documents, Rep. Paul Gosar urged a fight to the finish. “The FBI raid on Trump’s home tells us one thing,” the far-right Arizona congressman tweeted. “Failure is not an option. We must destroy the FBI.”
Three days later, an Ohio man named Ricky Shiffer donned tactical gear, armed himself with an AR-15, and went to the FBI field office in Cincinnati. After failing to breach the facility, he fled and later died in a shootout with law enforcement. Shiffer was a frequent user of Trump’s Truth Social site, where the ex-president has kept up steady attacks on political opponents and the Justice Department and FBI. Shiffer had posted about imminent violence, telling fellow Trump supporters to be ready “to jump into civil war.”
“People, this is it,” Shiffer wrote shortly after the Mar-a-Lago news broke. A Navy veteran who claimed he was also at the Capitol on January 6, 2021, he called for stocking up at gun stores with “whatever you need to be ready for combat.” He also said “patriots are heading to Palm Beach” and should kill any federal agents who try to stop them.
Was Shiffer spurred to attack the FBI by the statements from Trump and Gosar? It’s hard to know, and that’s no accident. Shiffer’s actions point to a rhetorical method experts call “stochastic terrorism,” whereby a leader vilifies a person or group in ways likely to instigate random supporters to attack those targets, while the instigator maintains a veneer of plausible deniability. Trump made this form of incitement a hallmark of his presidency, galvanizing extremists by railing against and dehumanizing his “enemies.” The country saw the devastating consequences when his supporters stormed Congress to obstruct certification of the presidential election. And now a growing number of Republicans are emulating Trump’s technique.
“While these attacks may defy specific predictability,” threat assessment experts Molly Amman and Reid Meloy wrote in a 2021 study in the journal Perspectives on Terrorism, “their likelihood is greatly increased by the public demonization process.” Repetition and saturation through social media and news coverage further amplifies the effect, they observed.
Violent threats have surged since Trump and his allies blasted the court-approved Mar-a-Lago search as a partisan conspiracy. The Justice Department filed charges against a Pennsylvania man who had allegedly posted threats online, including, “I sincerely believe that if you work for the FBI, then you deserve to DIE.” A Republican candidate for the Florida House announced he had a plan for federal agents to be shot “on sight.” Even the previously low-profile National Archives and Records Administration became a target.
In August, I attended a threat-assessment conference where several of the field’s leaders told me they were deeply alarmed about the volatile national atmosphere. While far-left rhetoric has stirred some violent protests and threats, they said, plots and attacks fueled by Trump’s incitement and MAGA extremism are by far the driving concern.
Forensic psychiatrist Philip Saragoza told me political extremism factors into a growing range of threat investigations. “People are just at a fever pitch,” he said. “The intensity of partisan hostility in general has continued to rise.”
After Mar-a-Lago, Trump allies claimed that the feds were coming for the MAGA base next. If the FBI can do this to him, they inveighed on social media and Fox News, just imagine what they could do to you. Ditto with their response to new funding boosting the ranks of the dilapidated IRS. This represents a stark reversal for the GOP: Whereas President George H.W. Bush once renounced the National Rifle Association for disparaging federal agents as “jack-booted thugs,” Republican senators now wield such rhetoric. “Stop Biden’s shadow army of 87,000 IRS agents,” Ted Cruz warned. Chuck Grassley insinuated that an IRS “strike force” could show up with assault weapons “ready to shoot some small business person in Iowa.”
Demagoguery of this kind can be a powerful accelerant, Saragoza says. “Most everyday people are likely to see these claims as absurd. But for some who identify with extreme partisanship, they very much see it as an existential threat.”
As details emerged from the Mar-a-Lago investigation, Sen. Lindsey Graham conjured a specter of civil unrest. “If there’s a prosecution of Donald Trump for mishandling classified information,” the South Carolina Republican said on Fox, “there’ll be riots in the street.” Trump posted Graham’s segment on Truth Social soon after. The next day Graham said he rejected violence—while continuing to predict “a lot of upset people” if Trump is charged. This also reflects the rhetorical technique modeled by the ex-president: inoculating oneself against responsibility by offering equivocal denials, claims to have been “joking,” or generalized statements of support for law and order. Such backpedaling never draws much attention, nor does it un-ring the bell for extremist followers.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is mimicking Trump’s playbook as he eyes a White House run. In a late-August speech, DeSantis evoked violence against a figure despised by the right: Anthony Fauci. “I’m just sick of seeing him,” DeSantis told a roaring crowd. “Someone needs to grab that little elf and chuck him across the Potomac.”
Beyond merely stoking political anger, DeSantis and various Republican agitators have adopted an alarming feature of Trump’s tirades: insults that appeal to visceral contempt and revulsion. Trump routinely demonized adversaries as “sick,” “creepy,” “nasty,” and “disgusting.” GOP lawmakers, including Lauren Boebert and Matt Gaetz, have followed suit. That’s especially concerning—research led by psychologist David Matsumoto shows that anger combined with contempt and disgust produces a potent hatred that increases the likelihood of violence.
Trump has ratcheted up the incitement in pace with his growing legal predicaments. “Never in our Country’s history has there been a time where law enforcement has been so viciously and violently involved in the life and times of politics,” he posted on Truth Social after the Mar-a-Lago search. “They are destroying our Country!”
He floated baseless claims that the FBI “planted” evidence and he targeted the federal judge who approved the search warrant: “Judge Bruce Reinhart should NEVER have allowed the Break-In of my home,” he wrote, adding that Reinhart—who was already facing violent threats—was driven by “animosity and hatred.” Trump also shared extremist posts, including an image showing Nancy Pelosi, Joe Biden, and Kamala Harris with their faces covered over by the words “Your enemy is not in Russia.”
At a rally in Pennsylvania on September 3, Trump escalated even further, calling the FBI and Justice Department “vicious monsters” and President Biden an “enemy of the state.” That outburst came after Biden had begun speaking more explicitly about the dangers posed by Trump. “History tells us that blind loyalty to a single leader and a willingness to engage in political violence is fatal to democracy,” Biden said in a primetime speech, openly rebuking Trump and “MAGA Republicans,” whom he framed as a minority of the GOP.
But barely any Republican leaders have called out the threat, and so long as Trump remains a political force and voters stay hunkered in partisan media silos, risk of further bloodshed at the hands of extremists will loom. Mass shooters in Pittsburgh in 2018 and El Paso, Texas, in 2019 espoused racist claims about an immigrant “invasion” that echoed rhetoric Trump frequently used. In the run-up to the January 6 attack, the far-right Proud Boys were emboldened by Trump’s infamous directive to “stand back and stand by”; leaders of the group instigated street brawls in the nation’s capital and played a major role in the insurrection. Recent polling suggests that some Republican voters may now see political violence as acceptable. And Trump keeps floating the possibility of pardoning and apologizing to January 6 rioters, many of whom have since pleaded guilty or been convicted of crimes that included brutal assaults on police officers.
National security expert Juliette Kayyem—who for years has warned of Trump’s role as the de facto leader of a domestic terrorism movement—sees the work of the House January 6 committee as helpful. “I am not looking for a single ‘blow’ to end MAGA incitement,” she remarked recently. “Violent movements either grow or weaken. There are significant metrics suggesting that post-January 6 efforts have taken their toll.” She sees a telling sign of weakness in Trump’s escalating rhetoric. Yet in the short term that may make him even more dangerous.
In Saragoza’s view, leaders in both parties face a moral imperative to confront incitement more honestly. “Our elected officials know by now that this is a serious problem,” he says. He and other experts have seen how anti-violence messaging can be effective, yet few public figures are trying to change the discourse. “More of them should be looking at the situation and be able to say, ‘This has really gotten out of hand.’”