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The United States is not on the verge of civil war

Have you ever heard of Ben Collins? He is a fixture on television, talking about his beat which is right wing rhetoric on the internet. He currently is focusing on the calls for violence and civil war that escalated after the FBI executed a search warrant at Trump’s Florida estate. The media, following the “If it bleeds it leads” mantra has been quick to warn of the danger of increased violence.

[For an example of Collins’ argument, see Ben Collins and Ryan Reilly, “After Mar-O-Largo search, users on pro-Trump forums agitate for ‘Civil War’ – including a Jan 6. rioter. More mainstream pro-Trump influencers, including podcasters with millions of followers on YouTube or Twitter, have also heightened their rhetoric. “ August 9, 2022 available at https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/justice-department/mar-lago-search-users-trump-forums-agitate-civil-war-jan-6-rioter-rcna42148]

Of course, the attack on the FBI field office in Cincinnati by a MAGA supporter is the princile case in point. On August 15, a Pennsylvania man was arrested for making explicit threats to kill FBI agents over social media.

[For that story, see the Justice Department Press Release.]

Now it is true that right wing rhetoric attacking the FBI and the Justice Department is pretty extreme. I could fill a paragraph with direct quotes and links to news reports but here’s a good one: Carl Paladino, a former Republican candidate for Governor in New York and a recently defeated candidate for the Republican nomination for Congress in the Buffalo, NY area said that Attorney General Garland should be “executed”. Later he claimed he was being “facetious.”

[See Associated Press, “GOP candidate says call for Garland's death was ‘facetious’“ August 18, 2022. Interestingly, Paladino failed in his bid for the Republican nomination for Congress because even he was too extreme for MAGA world. Though endorsed by Representative Stefanik, the number 3 Republican in the House, his previous remarks came back to haunt him. For some details see Allan Smith, “Carl Paladino loses House Bid to NY GOP Chair in closely watched race.”  NBC News, Decision 2022   Here’s a quote from the article about Paladino’s past. “In 2016, Paladino, then a member of the Buffalo Board of Education, made racist remarks about then-first lady Michelle Obama’s being "let loose in the outback of Zimbabwe where she lives comfortably in a cave with Maxie, the gorilla," and said he wished then-President Barack Obama would die of mad cow disease after having sex with a cow. He later said he ‘could not have made a worse choice in the words I used to express my feelings’.”]

And it is also important to acknowledge that, according to the FBI and Department of Homeland Security, threats against federal law enforcement have increased recently.

So please do not misunderstand me. I don’t for a minute want to discount the irresponsibility of the right-wing media and Republican officials who are ginning up the anger of Trump supporters. Though they clearly know better they are alleging that the FBI behaved like the “gestapo” when they “raided” Trump’s Florida resort. Actually, of course, they were executing a legal and constitutional search of Trump’s Florida estate. And why was the FBI there? Because Trump had illegally removed documents from the White House that belong to the American people not to him, and then over the course of months had either stonewalled or ignored the efforts of the National Archives to retrieve those documents --- including failing to respond to a subpoena.

The right wing lie machine has recently expanded its scope. With the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act by Congress, they have seized on increased funding for the Internal Revenue Service that will lead to the hiring of 87,000 agents --- (half of which will go to replace immanent retirements). To hear the liars at Fox News and too many Republican members of Congress, these agents, armed with machine guns, will be invading the homes of small business owners in search of unpaid taxes. In fact, very few of them will be in the armed enforcement units. Most IRS auditors work in offices at computers and most audits are conducted by mail or on line.

(The charge about armed agents was actually made by US Senator Chuck Grassley. If you don’t believe me, check out this report from an Iowa newspaper: Tom Barton, “Grassley bashed for warning of armed IRS agents 'ready to shoot’ business owners.” Quad-City Times, August 17, 2022. By the way, this same Senator Chuck Grassley back in 2010 accused the Affordable Care Act of setting up death panels so young people could kill off their grandparents. I remember seeing him on television warning about “pulling the plug on grandma…”. If you don’t believe THAT, check out this story from CBS news.


However, despite the outrageous and dangerous misbehavior of the right-wing echo chamber, right-wing pundits and too many members of Congress, a note of caution is in order. Talk is cheap and rhetoric is not the same as action. So far, there has been ONE --- repeat --- ONE attempt to physically harm FBI agents in the wake of the widespread anger stoked by Trump and his minions. Collins and other journalists on the “right wing insurgency beat” are in my opinion overstating the danger. I have seen Collins state that angry Trumpists are just waiting for a call to launch a re-run of the January 6 insurrection --- perhaps outside a court if Trump is ever indicted.

But let’s look at recent experiences. The night after Trump revealed the FBI search a handful of demonstrators supporting him showed up at his Florida estate --- a HANDFUL. Lawrence O’Donnell of MSNBC put that in context. He noted there were over FIVE MILLION Floridians who had voted for Trump in 2020. What did they do? he asked rhetorically, --- NOTHING.

Polling data shows that about 20 percent of Americans believe that violence is justified to protect “our freedom.” Twelve percent said they themselves were willing to be violent.

[See Neil Vigdor, “Survey Looks at Acceptance of Political Violence in U.S. Nearly 12 percent of respondents said it was at least “sometimes justified” to use violence if it meant returning Donald J. Trump to the presidency.”]

Of that group, do you think every one of them is really ready to start shooting? I would venture to guess that a large percentage of that group are what the Texans call, “All hat and no cattle,” In other words – big talkers.

We are NOT on the verge of Civil War. The vast majority of Americans wouldn’t think of engaging in violence against our own government. Yes, individual idiots might attempt that violence. They will meet the fate of the man who breached the Cincinnati FBI Field Office. Unlike Black Lives Matter demonstrators who are mostly unarmed and therefore vulnerable to a murderous fascist, the FBI and local law enforcement shoot back.

I hate to say it, but the emphasis by the media on the threats of violence obscures the more serious threats to American Democracy from the various acts of State Legislatures to make it harder to vote, to ban all abortions, to restrict what teachers can teach, and to permit a majority of legislators to overturn the results of an election. That’s the real danger of real fascism. That should be our focus.

Michael Meeropol is professor emeritus of Economics at Western New England University. He is the author with Howard and Paul Sherman of the recently published second edition of Principles of Macroeconomics: Activist vs. Austerity Policies

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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