Sally Kohn is a writer and CNN contributor.
Supporters of Donald Trump have been threatening violence if their candidate does not win the election, egged on at times by GOP presidential candidate himself. Questions about what forms such violence might take have unfortunately been answered in part by the armed siege of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge earlier this year, in many ways a dry run for post-election revolt. The acquittal last week of some of those responsible is an ominous sign—or worse, an invitation.
On Jan. 2, 2016, Ammon and Ryan Bundy led several armed associates to the office of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Ore., in part to protest how government-protected lands operate. They set up a roadblock, took up defensive positions in and around the refuge, and dismantled government surveillance cameras. The occupation by the heavily armed, fervently anti-government militants lasted a total of 41 days.
Among other charges, the Bundy brothers and five others were charged with conspiracy to prevent federal employees from doing their job. Despite evidence of planning presented at the trial, Ammon Bundy successfully argued that the takeover was spontaneous and thus couldn’t constitute a “conspiracy” as charged. And so the Bundy brothers and five of their co-defendants were found not guilty.
“This absolutely shocking verdict is sure to embolden armed paramilitary groups in the white-hot political environment in this country,” Tarso Luis Ramos, the executive director of Political Research Associates, a national think tank that studies right-wing organizations and hate groups, told the Washington Post.
But if we think those are the only groups being emboldened, we’re thinking too small. In painting his opponent as “crooked” and portraying our electoral system as “rigged,” it’s as though Trump is casting the same shadow of illegitimacy on politics that the Bundy family and their allies cast on public lands. And the response is now clear—and, thanks to the Oregon acquittal, potentially consequence-free.
Trump has said that if Clinton wins the election, there’s nothing anyone can do, then added, “Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know.” Trump denied he was calling for violence should he be defeated and Clinton win, and yet his supporters have certainly echoed that message. A few weeks ago, I attended a Trump rally in Wilkes Barre, Penn., where Trump and the crowd chanted “Lock her up!” but some people in the audience went even further, shouting “Hang her in the streets!”
CNN spoke with one Trump supporter who said: “Hillary needs to be taken out.” The New York Times spoke with one man who called for a “Revolutionary War” if Clinton wins, saying that Trump supporters are “going to do whatever needs to be done to get her out of office” and do so “by any means necessary.” Milwaukee Sherriff and Trump supporter David A. Clark recently tweeted that it’s “pitchforks and torches time” and former Republican Congressman Joe Walsh tweeted, “On November 8th, I’m voting for Trump. On November 9th, if Trump loses, I’m grabbing my musket. You in?”
If Clinton does, in fact, win the election—which is by no means a foregone conclusion at this point—it’s unclear what role Trump will play in either appealing for acceptance or stoking discontent. But perhaps even more disturbing is that it may not matter what Trump does. He has encouraged within his supporters a profound hatred of Clinton and a perverted distrust of government and democracy, which Trump might not be able to stop on Nov. 9 even if he wanted to. In the same way that the GOP policies and personalities created the Frankenstein’s monster that is Trump, Trump has created the monstrous mob within his base. Now it’s alive—not to mention armed and angry.
It’s not hard to imagine Trump supporters looking at the Malheur occupation as a pre-written playbook—physically and symbolically taking over the premises of the enemy that is government, in a way that leads to tons of press attention but not criminal convictions. It’s not far-fetched to envision Trump supporters staging armed occupations of IRS buildings and the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Education in Washington—plus occupying sections of the U.S./Mexico border to start building the wall Trump had promised them.
On some level, it seems preposterous, but no more preposterous than a group of armed anti-government insurgents taking over federal property without any legal consequence, nor more preposterous than a billionaire misogynist rising from reality television to become a presidential candidate. In an election that has constantly exceeded expectations in worst case scenarios, the worst may be yet to come.