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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.
News / Opinion / Columns

McManus: Take Trump at his word

By Doyle McManus
Published: June 18, 2024, 6:01am

Donald Trump says the rioters who assaulted police officers in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot are “warriors.” That’s not just wrong; it’s dangerous.

On Jan. 6, 2021, more than 2,000 supporters of then-President Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol, hoping to stop the certification of President Joe Biden’s election. Many came armed with pistols, knives, baseball bats, metal pipes, stun guns or bear spray, and used them to attack police. Some 140 officers were assaulted.

In the ensuing three years, prosecutors have charged more than 1,400 of the rioters. More than 100 have been charged with causing serious injury to an officer or using a dangerous weapon. Several dozen are in jail awaiting trial.

For months, Trump has called defendants “hostages” and “political prisoners,” as if they were being held unfairly by a repressive regime — a grotesque lie meant to attack the judicial system Trump wants to destroy.

But recently he gave the Jan. 6 attackers a more heroic title.

“Those J6 warriors — they were warriors,” the former president said at a rally in Las Vegas. “But they were really, more than anything else, they’re victims of what happened. All they were doing is protesting a rigged election.”

That’s quite a promotion. “Warriors” is a word Americans generally apply to members of the armed forces, not militants who attack police officers with bear spray. Trump has crossed a line from defending the Jan. 6 detainees to lionizing them. He has also promised to pardon most or all of them if he regains the White House.

The big problem isn’t how many he would pardon in 2025. The problem is the message he’s sending to extremists who might be tempted to act in 2024: If you fight for me, you, too, can count on getting off — and on being hailed as a hero.

That’s a pretty loud dog whistle. Trump’s praise for the rioters has come with an ugly escalation of his language on other themes.

He has denounced his opponents as “vermin,” a word that usually suggests extermination. He has claimed that migrants from Latin America, Asia and Africa are “poisoning our blood,” language used by segregationists and Nazis.

And he has talked about taking revenge on Biden and others he claims “rigged” his conviction by a New York jury for 34 felonies in state court. (There is no evidence the administration played any role.)

Scholars of terrorism find all this worrisome.

“His message is escalating,” said Jon Lewis of George Washington University. “He’s saying: ‘We are warriors, and we have to stop this tyranny.’ It sounds intended to get his base ready for an impending conflict that will require violence.”

Trump’s promise of pardons serves a similar purpose, said Jacob Ware of the Council on Foreign Relations. “Prosecutions have two goals: punishment and deterrence. The (Jan. 6 defendants) have been punished, but Trump’s language has eroded any deterrence.”

It comes at a dangerous time. In its annual threat assessment, the Department of Homeland Security warned that any presidential election increases the risk of domestic terrorism.

The groups that led the assault on Jan. 6 have retreated in the face of prosecutions, but they haven’t gone away.

“There’s a lot of concern about election violence,” said Ware, coauthor of a recent book on domestic extremism, “God, Guns and Sedition.” “My worry is that conspiracy theories are so deeply entrenched in the (pro-Trump) movement, anything the federal government tries to do will be seen as an escalation. . . . So it may be more effective for state and local governments and civil society to take the lead.”

One focus of state efforts will be protecting vote-counting sites, especially in swing states with a history of slow tabulation: Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

The first step, though, is to take the problem seriously. This isn’t just Trump being Trump. He claims to be a champion of law and order, but he’s in favor of violence if it will help him take power — and he’s proclaiming it in plain sight.