Trump's civil war tweet and whistleblower attacks are designed to create a facade of fear

Facing impeachment, Trump is weaker than ever. But it’s hard to tell because he and the MAGA movement have always depended on their pageant of menace.
Image: President Trump Holds Rally In Great Falls, Montana
President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at Four Seasons Arena in Great Falls, Montana on July 5, 2018.Justin Sullivan / Getty Images file
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By Nina Burleigh, author of "Golden Handcuffs: The Secret History of Trump's Women"

As we careen into impeachment autumn, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1933 Inaugural words, “The only thing we have to fear is... fear itself” should be uppermost in the minds of the 55 percent majority of Americans who polls indicate believe President Donald Trump should be impeached.

Trump's campaign rallies and the violent messaging of his supporters have often inspired fear. The whiff of jackboots has been enough to send a good portion of us reaching for the smelling salts. The man accused of killing 22 people in El Paso, Texas, used the same anti-immigrant rhetoric Trump has used in the past. More recently, lawyers for the whistleblower at the center of Trump’s Ukraine scandal claimed the president’s commentary and threats have endangered their client’s safety.

Impeachment is provoking concern that Trump's extreme (and armed) supporters will be moved to public violence. That perception of menace, however false, has propped up Trump for a long time.

It’s past time to get a grip. Now impeachment is provoking concern that Trump's extreme (and armed) supporters will be moved to public violence. That perception of menace, however false, has likely propped up Trump for a long time.

In the animal kingdom, there is a fascinating biological mechanism known as deimatic display. The mechanism developed to help weaker animals defend themselves through optical illusion and sleight of hand. The word “deimatic” comes from the Greek word "to frighten.” Animals with deimatic defenses include the Australian frilled lizard, the octopus and other soft or fragile creatures that make themselves look more dangerous and powerful than they really are. These bluffing displays and behavior include looking bigger than one is — like the pufferfish.

Since 2015, TV-watching Americans have been subject to the deimatic spectacle of more than 400 rallies (at least 80 since his election) in which Trump sometimes openly and more often coyly urged supporters to violence. These spectacles have conditioned many Americans to fear him and his more enthusiastic supporters.

Tens of millions of Americans have now witnessed the spitting white rage of a minority of men and women shouting at journalists on live television. The rhetoric, and the images, coupled with the reasonable suspicion that those angry people belong to the same small but scary 3 percent minority of Americans who own half the guns, has shaped politics — if that it can be called — in America for the last four years.

The truth is Trump is not invincible. He is — and always was — vulnerable. The emperor’s new clothes he got to wear after Republicans took over Washington in 2016 was substantially shredded after the 2018 midterms.

Facing impeachment, he is even weaker. But it’s hard to tell because he and the MAGA movement have always depended on the deimatic effect of the pageant of menace, with Trump as a jut-jawed master of ceremonies to the frothing minority at his rallies and their online analogs and swarming online.

This grand spectacle has always made them seem bigger and more fearsome than they are. And Trump counts on it.

This is not to say that it is completely benign. Not at all. Death threats drove Christine Blasey Ford to move out of her house and go into hiding after her testimony about Judge Brett Kavanaugh was revealed. The Ukraine weapons-for-dirt whistleblower probably does rightly fear for his or her safety.

But what about the rest of us? What are we to make of Trump’s threatening tweets about a second civil war or about arresting the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee for treason?

An aura of potential violence and bloodshed was always part of the Trump circus. I remember when many were certain the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland could turn into a combat zone. Reporters from some big media outlets who were dispatched to Cleveland got riot training and were even equipped with medical kits for traumatic wounds. (I personally bought a bike helmet and goggles for the tear gas that never came).

Cleveland seemed a grotesque celebration of misogyny — but the expected violence never erupted. The Hells Angels who rallied for Trump kept their cool. The Truckers for Trump didn’t need to encircle the city with their rigs to defend the coronation.

After Trump won, the only man to charge into Washington armed with a AR-15 rifle and a handgun for political action was Edgar Maddison Welch, the misguided dope from North Carolina, who wanted to “investigate” the pervasive conspiracy theory that Clinton supporters were running a child sex-trafficking ring out of a popular Washington pizzeria.

An aura of potential violence and bloodshed was always part of the Trump circus. I remember when many were certain the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland could turn into a combat zone.

Welch was indeed dangerous. The violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and white nationalist mass shootings targeting Latinos in El Paso, Texas, and Jews at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh were far worse — shocking and horrific acts of political violence. They have been cited as symptoms of our grave national sickness: the proliferation of guns.

But they do not portend civil war. The Welches and other shooters whose names I will not mention here are but a tiny minority of Americans.

That is one reason why we should laugh at Dallas megachurch “Pastor” Robert Jeffress when he said on Fox this week: “I do want to make this prediction this morning: If the Democrats are successful in removing the president from office, I’m afraid it will cause a Civil War-like fracture in this nation from which this country will never heal.”

Trump liked that one, naturally. He tweeted it out almost verbatim, precipitating a day of Twitter hilarity with #civilwar2. Joking aside, we should be thinking of Trump as less Mussolini and more the little fat man behind the curtain. An “Oz-ness” may well be the open secret about Trump and Trumpism. Deimatic display is just part of his playbook.

His daughter, female avatar and senior White House adviser, Ivanka, encapsulated the strategy in her 2009 book, “The Trump Card: Playing to Win in Work and Life.” “Perception is more important than reality,” she wrote, “If someone perceives something to be true, it is more important than if it is in fact true. This doesn't mean you should be duplicitous or deceitful, but don't go out of your way to correct a false assumption if it plays to your advantage.”

The greatest threat to Trump's and other anti-democratic movements is time. He’s starred on the national political stage for four years now — and the cloak of invincibility has worn thin. Remember that, before the 2018 midterms, he was warning of violence if he lost — violence he blamed in advance on his foes. He lost the midterms. The mobs with machine guns and torches never materialized.

Time has revealed the shallowness of his menace, the biteless bark of it all.