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Wednesday, April 05, 2023

Trump’s Calls to Protest Fall on Weary, Wary Ears - The New York Times

Trump’s calls to protest fall on weary, wary ears.

"The swarms on Manhattan streets were from media outlets, not supporters, and while the reasons to steer clear varied, Jan. 6 was on plenty of minds.

A police officer stands and looks ahead as crowds gather on two sides of barricades.
The scene on Tuesday near the courthouse in Lower Manhattan where Donald J. Trump was arraigned.Ahmed Gaber for The New York Times

In Lower Manhattan on Tuesday morning, near the courthouse where Donald J. Trump was to be arraigned, Dion Cini, a Trump merchandise entrepreneur from Brooklyn and frequent presence at Trump rallies, waved an enormous flag that read TRUMP OR DEATH.

“We’re living in history right now,” he told a scrum of mostly European reporters.

But the crowd — for a demonstration convened by the New York Young Republican Club, where Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene would soon speak — was overwhelmingly made up of journalists. Trump supporters were so outnumbered that anyone in Make America Great Again attire was quickly swarmed by cameras.

On Truth Social last month, Mr. Trump exhorted his supporters: “WE MUST SAVE AMERICA! PROTEST, PROTEST, PROTEST!” But while his indictment has been met with outrage across right-wing media and social media, the offline response has so far been a far cry from the turnouts at his campaign rallies — much less the tens of thousands he drew to Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, for the rally that became a violent attempt to avert the end of his presidency.

Pro-Trump organizers and outside observers have pointed to a range of factors to explain the low turnout. They include the relatively short notice of the arraignment, the mixed messages from right-wing media figures and politicians like Ms. Greene — who last month stoked fear that an indictment protest could be infiltrated by “Feds/Fed assets” — and the question of what, exactly, a demonstration would accomplish.

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But the small crowds are also a testament to a political landscape that has changed since the explosive finale of Mr. Trump’s presidency.

“The right has zero interest in repeating anything that even remotely resembles Jan. 6,” said Dustin Stockton, an organizer of the pro-Trump Stop the Steal rallies that culminated at the Capitol that day.

The riot drew its incendiary force from its particular combination of rank-and-file Trump supporters and a smaller cohort of extremists who had found a footing in the Republican mainstream in the Trump years. Those constituencies grew closer in 2020, as Covid-19 lockdowns, racial justice protests and riots and finally Mr. Trump’s claims of a stolen election drew them together around a common set of grievances — grievances that were converted into a call to action by right-wing media and influencers, Republican politicians and Mr. Trump himself.

Jon Lewis, a research fellow in the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, said those conditions would be extraordinarily hard to replicate, even after a development as extraordinary as Mr. Trump’s indictment.

“The further away we get from Jan. 6, the more it is being recognized as a unique perfect storm of events, of actors, of circumstances,” Mr. Lewis said.

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Since Jan. 6, rallies similar to those that gathered large crowds in 2020 have struggled to produce significant turnouts. An annual gun-rights rally in Richmond, Va., which brought tens of thousands of gun owners and militia members into the streets in January 2020, drew only hundreds in late January 2021. The crowds were similarly sparse at Inauguration Day protests in Washington and statehouses across the country days later.

Demonstrations against Covid-19 vaccine mandates in late 2021 and early 2022 sought to recapture the energy of the “re-open” protests in the spring of 2020, and did draw several thousand to the National Mall in January 2022. But they mostly evaporated after states eased their Covid-19 policies that spring.

Claims of a stolen 2020 election animated many prominent Republican candidates and grass-roots groups in last year’s midterm elections. But the most prominent election deniers lost, and the most significant demonstration over the candidates’ defeats, in Phoenix, drew only a couple of hundred people.

A crucial missing element in all of these events was Mr. Trump himself. His ability to draw supporters to the new cause of his prosecution remains to be seen.

But participants and observers have also pointed to the chilling effect of the law enforcement crackdowns and congressional investigations since Jan. 6. F.B.I. domestic terrorism investigations have more than doubled since 2020, according to the Government Accountability Office. Under the Biden administration, “you have seen the early signs of a sea change in how the U.S. government is approaching domestic violent extremism,” Mr. Lewis said.

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High-profile federal prosecutions related to Jan. 6 have swept up the national leaderships of the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, some of whom have been convicted of sedition and other serious crimes. Individual rioters, many of whom documented their activities on Jan. 6 on social media, have faced detention and prosecution on lesser charges, or at least visits from federal agents.

The result has been a climate of paranoia around the open social media organizing that was critical to the Stop the Steal demonstrations, as well as around large offline gatherings. This is particularly true in Washington, with its large federal law enforcement presence, and New York, where prosecutors have become particularly reviled figures on the right for their legal proceedings against the Trump Organization, the National Rifle Association, the former Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon and now Mr. Trump himself.

Among right-wing organizers, “the overwhelming consensus is D.C. is a no-go zone, and New York has weaponized lawfare against everyone on the right,” said Mr. Stockton, who was raided in 2020 by federal agents for his role in a border-wall fund-raising venture involving Mr. Bannon, who has been charged by Manhattan prosecutors with defrauding contributors. (Mr. Bannon has pleaded not guilty and Mr. Stockton was never charged. Timothy Shea, another participant, was convicted of related federal charges in October.) “Everyone assumes there are traps everywhere.”

While denunciations of the charges against Mr. Trump have dominated the conservative and right-wing media for weeks, the question of whether to protest them has been met with less unanimity.

While some, like the former Trump administration official Sebastian Gorka, have called the moment a “time of sorting” and urged Trump supporters to “peacefully protest,” others have warned that the political risk of such a protest’s turning violent far outweighs the potential reward.

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“DO NOT PROTEST IN NYC TOMORROW,” the talk radio host John Cardillo, a former New York police officer, wrote on Twitter on Monday. “The Democrats want you to do that. They want people to get out of hand, be arrested, and be able to claim another J6.”

And to some people and groups closely associated with the Jan. 6 riot, Mr. Trump is a more ambivalent cause than he once was.

“Remember what happened last time Trump called a protest? He threw everyone under the bus,” a local Proud Boys chapter in Illinois posted on Telegram last month, amid a series of memes depicting Trump protest organizers as undercover federal agents.

But Joe McBride, a lawyer for a number of Jan. 6 defendants who said he has served as an intermediary between their families and Mr. Trump’s circle, said that “there’s certainly a sense of brotherhood” with the former president after his indictment.

Karen Lichtbraun, a preschool teacher from New York who attended Tuesday’s demonstration in Manhattan, said the fear of arrest was one reason for the relatively modest turnout. “Look what’s happening with the people who participated in Jan. 6,” she said.

But she noted that the rally site in deep blue Manhattan played a role as well.

“It’s New York, unfortunately,” she said.

Alexandra Berzon contributed reporting."

Trump’s Calls to Protest Fall on Weary, Wary Ears - The New York Times

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