For Cesar Sayoc, becoming a follower of Donald Trump was “like my newfound drug.” He saw himself as a warrior “on the front lines of war between right and left.” He believed leftists had tried to kill him by tampering with his van’s electrical wiring, and blamed it on “liberal left leaders” who “encourage attacks and violence.”
So in retaliation, he sent pipe bombs to 16 different recipients last October, all of them targets of Trump’s incendiary rhetoric. Among them: President Barack Obama, Hillary and Bill Clinton, George Soros, actor Robert De Niro, CNN, and the Washington Post.
The #MAGAbomber, as Sayoc, 56, became known, was instantly identified upon his arrest with his Trump-sticker-festooned van. Social media posts quickly revealed him as a steroid-abusing bodybuilder from the Miami area who wore the red ball caps, traveled to Trump rallies, and was a rabid fan of the president. In April, he pleaded guilty to an array of domestic-terrorism charges.
The bombing scare (the devices were actually incapable of harming anyone) quickly vanished down the public memory hole. But the episode remains a stark reminder that America has entered a new age of scripted violence—also known as stochastic terrorism, a scenario in which “a leader need not directly exhort violence to create a constituency that hears a call to take action against the named enemy”—in which the president himself is writing the scripts for others to follow and enact violence.
A letter Sayoc wrote to the judge in his case, which was released this week, underscored the extent to which the right-wing authoritarian cult around the president is likely to act out violently. In it, Sayoc described attending a Trump rally in Chicago in which he was attacked by leftist counterprotesters, whose presence he blamed on Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
There really has been little question, in fact, that Trump’s hatemongering has fueled not just the #MAGAbomber rampage, but a number of other acts of terroristic violence: the synagogue massacre by white nationalist Robert Bowers in Pittsburgh; the mosque attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand; and a stymied domestic-terrorism plot in Illinois. Similarly, the sudden sharp increase in hate crimes of the past three years is increasingly tied to Trump’s rhetoric, especially since a large portion of the crimes are now accompanied by references to Trump. This was notably the case in places where Trump held rallies, which saw a 226 percent increase in hate crimes.
Trump has a history of encouraging violence explicitly—as when he told rally audiences that he’d like to punch protesters, just before members of the audiences sometimes did—as well as implicitly, by rationalizing the behavior as excusable. When two Boston men in 2015 brutally beat a Latino man and urinated on him, and then credited Trump as inspiration, he made excuses for them: “I will say that people who are following me are very passionate. They love this country and they want this country to be great again. They are passionate. I will say that, and everybody here has reported it.”
As Chip Berlet explains in his essay on scripted violence:
The potential for violence in a society increases when the mass media carries rhetorical vilification by high profile and respected figures who scapegoat a named ‘Other’. This dangerous ‘constitutive rhetoric’ can build an actual constituency of persons feeling threatened or displaced. Or to put it another way, when rhetorical fecal matter hits the spinning verbal blades of a bigoted demagogue’s exhortations, bad stuff happens.
The resulting violence can incite a mob, a mass movement, a war, or an individual actor. Individual actors who engage in violence can emerge in three ways. They can be assigned the task of violence by an existing organizational leadership; they can be members or participants in an existing organization, yet decide to act on their own; or they can be unconnected to an existing organization and act on their own. According to the US government definition, a ‘Lone Wolf’ is a person who engages in political violence and is not known by law enforcement agencies to have any current or previous ties to an organization under surveillance as potential lawbreakers. The person committing the violence may expect or even welcome martyrdom, or may plan for a successful escape to carry on being a political soldier in a hoped-for insurgency. Either way, the hope is that ‘a little spark can cause a prairie fire’. Revolution is seldom the result, but violence and death remains as a legacy.
This plays a key role in how violence created by a tide of young men radicalized online by far-right ideologues and conspiracy theories is spread. Having a figure like Trump both normalizing their extremism and encouraging violence in support of it means that it is being spread throughout American society.
The way this finds expression is with men like Cesar Sayoc, who see themselves as “warriors” in a larger fight against evil itself, which in their view is embodied by liberals and leftists. This is why so many right-wing Trump supporters speak so eagerly of launching a “civil war” against urban liberals.
Trump himself indulges in this “warrior” mentality. A 2017 New York Times piece by Glenn Thrush and Maggie Haberman explained Trump’s worldview somewhat nonchalantly in a piece exploring why the president attacked NFL players:
In private, the president and his top aides freely admit that he is engaged in a culture war on behalf of his white, working-class base, a New York billionaire waging war against “politically correct” coastal elites on behalf of his supporters in the South and in the Midwest. He believes the war was foisted upon him by former President Barack Obama and other Democrats—and he is determined to win, current and former aides said.
The danger with Trump in office, of course, is that he will in fact openly encourage such violence on his behalf, as he did when he warned that impeachment might bring out the “Bikers for Trump” element. There is a real likelihood that, as Michael Cohen warned House investigators, Trump will not concede his office peacefully after the next election, even if he were to lose the election by a wide margin. The authoritarian tide under Trump remains as high as it ever has been.