Opinion: MAGA’s violent threats are warping life in America

File photo/Kenny Holston/The New York Times / The white supremacist group Patriot Front at the March for Life rally in Washington on Jan. 21, 2022. Far-right groups and individuals have stepped up confrontations and violence despite the convictions in the wake of the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack.
File photo/Kenny Holston/The New York Times / The white supremacist group Patriot Front at the March for Life rally in Washington on Jan. 21, 2022. Far-right groups and individuals have stepped up confrontations and violence despite the convictions in the wake of the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack.

Amid the constant drumbeat of sensational news stories, it's sometimes easy to overlook the deeper trends that are shaping American life. For example, are you aware how much the constant threat of violence, principally from MAGA sources, is now warping American politics? If you wonder why so few people in red America seem to stand up directly against the Make America Great Again movement, are you aware of the price they might pay if they did?

Late last month, I listened to a fascinating NPR interview with journalists Michael Isikoff and Daniel Klaidman about their new book, "Find Me the Votes," about Donald Trump's efforts to overturn the 2020 election. They report that Georgia prosecutor Fani Willis had trouble finding lawyers willing to help prosecute her case against Trump. Even a former Georgia governor turned her down, saying, "Hypothetically speaking, do you want to have a bodyguard follow you around for the rest of your life?"

He wasn't exaggerating. Willis received an assassination threat so specific that one evening she had to leave her office incognito while a body double wearing a bulletproof vest courageously pretended to be her and offered a target for any possible incoming fire.

Don't think for a moment that this is unusual today. Judge Tanya Chutkan, who is overseeing Trump's federal Jan. 6 trial, has been swatted, as has special counsel Jack Smith.

Mitt Romney faces so many threats that he spends $5,000 per day on security to protect his family. After Jan. 6, former Republican Rep. Peter Meijer said that at least one colleague voted not to certify the election out of fear for the safety of their family.

My own family has experienced terrifying nights and terrifying days over the past several years. I've interacted with the FBI, the Tennessee Department of Homeland Security and local law enforcement.

And no, threats of ideological violence do not come exclusively from the right. We saw too much destruction accompanying the George Floyd protests to believe that. We've seen left-wing attacks and threats against Republicans and conservatives.

But the tsunami of MAGA threats is different. The intimidation is systemic and ubiquitous, an acknowledged tactic in the playbook of the Trump right that flows all the way down from the violent fantasies of Donald Trump himself.

But I don't want to be too bleak. So let me end with a point of light. In the summer of 2021, I received a quite direct threat after I'd written a series of pieces opposing bans on teaching critical race theory in public schools. Someone sent my wife an email threatening to shoot me in the face.

My wife and I knew that it was almost certainly a bluff. But we also knew that white nationalists had our home address, both of us were out of town, and the only person home that night was my college-age son. So we called the local sheriff, shared the threat and asked if the department could send someone to check our house.

Minutes later, a young deputy called to tell me all was quiet at our home. Then he asked, "Why did you get this threat?"

Our community is so MAGA that I had a pang of concern about his response. "I'm a columnist," I said, "and we've had lots of threats ever since I wrote against Donald Trump."

The deputy paused for a moment. "I'm a vet," he said, "and I volunteered to serve because I believe in our Constitution. I believe in free speech." And then he said words I'll never forget: "You keep speaking, and I'll stand guard."

I didn't know that deputy's politics, and I didn't need to. When I heard his words, I thought, that's it. That's the way through. Sometimes we are called to speak. Sometimes we are called to stand guard. All the time we can at least comfort those under threat, telling them with words and deeds that they are not alone. If we do that, we can persevere. Otherwise, the fear will be too much for good people to bear.

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