Among MAGA Extremists, Trump Charges Draw Big Talk, Small Crowds

Washington Post photo by Matt McClain
Protesters gather outside the E. Barrett Prettyman courthouse on Thursday in D.C., where former president Donald Trump pleaded not guilty to charges that he conspired to overturn the results of the 2020 election.

WASHINGTON – As Donald Trump left Thursday for his arraignment on a third criminal indictment, he fired off a social media post telling his supporters that he was showing up to a D.C. federal courthouse “for you.”

Few returned the favor.

“Many people have really given up,” said Steve Corson, 66, of Fredonia, Ariz., standing alone outside the courthouse in a “We the People” hat, a starkly different experience from Jan. 6, 2021, when he marched to the U.S. Capitol alongside thousands of other Trump fans.

For all the online outrage, only a handful of Trump supporters turned out to protest the latest charges against the former president, continuing a shift in the right-wing fervor that once drew thousands to D.C. rallies, clogged lakes with boat parades and mobilized a de facto “MAGA militia” in the armed groups that took his extremist rhetoric to the streets.

These days, Trump’s appeal endures – he’s the front-runner, by far, in a crowded field of 2024 Republican hopefuls – but those once-flashy shows of public support have been scarce, even at a moment when Trump faces monumental legal fights on his way to a presidential race he has described as “the final battle.”

In a post last spring, Trump predicted “potential death & destruction” if he were criminally charged, a statement extremism researchers called dangerously incendiary but also out of step with a reality where even his most devoted supporters aren’t rising up in significant numbers to defend him.

Analysts say that’s partly because of the chilling effect of the Justice Department’s aggressive prosecution of U.S. Capitol rioters, and partly because Trump’s supporters don’t see him as urgently imperiled, a factor that could change should he slip in the polls or face serious jail time. The specter of political violence isn’t gone, the researchers emphasized, but they said the threat now comes from radicalized individuals rather than from the more organized pro-Trump groups that took part in the Jan. 6 attack.

“I don’t think we’re gonna see these large-scale protests or anything, but it’s still unfortunately possible that we can see some sort of lone actor trying to take things into their own hands,” said Katie McCarthy of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center On Extremism. “That’s really, for me, the more concerning thing, and that’s the hardest part, unfortunately, to also try and detect.”

That trend already has revealed itself. Amid extremists’ calls for “civil war” last summer following the FBI’s search at Mar-a-Lago for classified documents, an armed man wearing body armor tried breaching the FBI’s Cincinnati field office, sparking an hours-long standoff that ended when he was gunned down after firing at officers.

In October, a man who had embraced far-right conspiracy theories broke into the home of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and yelled, “Where is Nancy?” before assaulting her 82-year-old husband with a hammer. And earlier this summer, a man was arrested with weapons in his van near the residence of former president Barack Obama.

News of the latest Trump indictment – his third – drew outrage among his backers but not immediate calls for violence or for “Stop the Steal”-style national rallies like the one that preceded the mayhem in early 2021.

That’s a risk few MAGA-allied organizers are willing to take after watching the sweeping prosecution of Capitol rioters, an exercise they portray as an overblown witch hunt or, in the most conspiratorial circles, a false-flag operation staged by “the feds.”

In some quarters, McCarthy said, there’s also lingering resentment over the former president’s failure to pardon Capitol rioters before leaving office.

“They’re sort of reluctant to do anything for him now because they feel like they went out on a limb for him that day, and he didn’t do anything to help them in return,” she said. “And, as a result, they seem to have sort of moved on.”

The national leadership of far-right groups such as the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys – two of the most visible extremist elements of the Capitol attack – crumbled under seditious conspiracy convictions.

Oath Keepers as a nationwide entity is all but finished, extremism trackers say, though its anti-government ideology lives on in several other self-styled militia groups. The Proud Boys have been more successful at regrouping on the grass-roots level, targeting LGBTQ+-related events and disrupting public meetings at libraries and school boards.

As with Trump’s previous indictments, his extremist supporters registered their fury at this week’s developments – though mainly online, with memes of a valiant Trump, angry-face and poop emoji, and social media posts calling the charges a “waste of paper.” Scattered calls for unspecified retribution against an imagined “Marxist takeover” typically stopped short of explicit threats.

“As of yet, we have not seen any overwhelming or specific plans for violence – or at least anything comparable to what we saw after Trump’s ‘will be wild’ tweet” summoning crowds to Washington to protest his election defeat, Rita Katz, the executive director of SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks extremists, said in a statement. “Back then, they really believed Trump had their back and was ready to lead a rebellion.

Still, researchers caution, it’s important not to conflate the lack of a street presence with a lack of support. From the Republican mainstream to the party fringes, reactions to the Jan. 6 indictment followed the same themes: the case is a gambit to sideline Trump and “steal” the 2024 election, a D.C. court couldn’t possibly be a fair venue, and it’s a ploy to distract from legal woes of the “Biden crime family.”

“The more indictments he’s slapped with, the more popular he seems to become,” said terrorism analyst Colin P. Clarke of the Soufan Group, an intelligence consulting firm. “It plays well into his narrative of a witch hunt, and he’s made it strictly about politics when in reality it’s about the rule of law.”