‘He Betrayed Us’: Why Trump’s Call to Protest Is Flopping

5 minute read

Donald Trump’s calls for supporters to protest his possible indictment by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg led officials to tighten security in New York and Washington and raised fears of potential violence. But Trump’s exhortations were largely met with reluctance from both prominent supporters and the far-right online acolytes who responded to his rallying cry on Jan. 6, 2021.

A demonstration on Monday organized by the New York Young Republican Club outside the Manhattan court where Trump would be arraigned if indicted drew barely 50 people. Only a handful of supporters showed up outside his Mar-a-Lago residence in Florida, according to local reports.

Distrustful that protests might be “traps” set by federal law enforcement and without a fixed date or event to rally around, the vast majority of pro-Trump online groups seemed to waver between apathy and confusion, showing very little appetite for organized action. “He’s not infallible and protest is very vague,” one person wrote in a popular MAGA Telegram group. “And what exactly does “Protest, Protest!!!” mean?” another person asked in a different group. “I’m not trying to be a jerk but you’d think he could give slightly more explicit instructions if he really wanted the tens of millions of people who support him to do something effective.”

While there were the usual mentions of “civil war” and apocalyptic language about using violence to “take the country back” that have become commonplace in far-right channels, polls in these groups asking if followers would protest for Trump overwhelmingly found their members opposed. While far-right groups see Trump’s possible arrest as a politicized prosecution, they mostly advised each other to stay home. “I think “protest” is bad advice from Trump,” read one post on a pro-Trump forum. “Unless you’re willing to actually and truly do an insurrection, taking all oppressors prisoner (or worse), there is no point to “protest” here.”

Read More: With All Eyes on Washington, the Real Far-Right Threat Has Moved On.

None of the prominent Trump supporters who played key roles in organizing rallies and protests in the past stepped up either, with many of them publicly declaring they were staying out of it. “I’m retired,” Ali Alexander, a right-wing activist and key organizer of the 2020 “Stop the Steal” rallies that led to Jan. 6, wrote in a post on the Telegram messaging app. Alexander said he had spoken to Alex Jones, a prominent conspiracy theorist involved in the Jan. 6 rallies. “He’s not protesting either. We’ve both got enough going on fighting the government,” he wrote. “No billionaire is covering our bills.”

The muted response highlights the lack of enthusiasm for and widespread distrust of mass protests after the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, which led to more than 1,000 prosecutions. A review of more than two dozen popular pro-Trump Telegram channels, online forums, and social media groups also suggests that many supporters feel betrayed by what they see as the former President’s abandonment of those who rallied for him on Jan. 6, 2021.

“Why would I protest for a man that left the [Jan. 6 protesters] high and dry?” one user posted in a pro-Trump Telegram group. “Trump did nothing to help them after they stuck [their] neck out for him.”

“Has he called for protests about these poor guys? No. But he’s calling for us to protest about his arrest,” another person wrote. “It doesn’t sit right with me.” Another user agreed: “He’s right. Trump betrayed the J6 patriots. How can anybody still support [him]?”

Read More: Inside One Combat Vet’s Journey From Defending His County to Storming the Capitol.

Many of the narratives in right-wing circles online have centered on warnings that the federal government is trying to stoke violent protests by Trump supporters so they can arrest them, according to an analysis shared with TIME by Logically, a U.K.-based tech firm that tracks online misinformation. Far-right groups have warned followers that any protests could be a “setup” or “Deep State traps” to draw our Trump supporters. When the British far-right YouTuber Paul Joseph Watson asked his more than 218,000 followers on Truth Social “Is the potential protest against Trump being arrested a J6-style trap?” more than 85% responded “Yes.”

On online messaging groups and forums, Trump supporters discussed alternative ways to protest, with many urging people to withdraw their money from banks, organize national work strikes, set up prayer groups or fly American flags upside down. “Don’t expose your back, because Trump does not have yours,” one user on a pro-Trump social media group wrote. “And he never will.”

Read More: The United States of Political Violence

Still, intelligence officials have tracked an uptick in violent rhetoric in recent days, with most threats targeting law enforcement, judges and government officials in New York, according to a CBS report. Extremism analysts and former law enforcement officials have cautioned that the risk of violence is more likely to come from an individual who decides to act, as happened last year when an armed man attacked the FBI’s office in Cincinnati after the agents raided Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Vera Bergengruen at vera.bergengruen@time.com