After news broke this week that the FBI executed a search warrant at Mar-a-Lago—former President Donald Trump’s personal Elba—prominent conservatives reacted with unalloyed fury. Top Republicans, ranging from Ted Cruz to Ron DeSantis to Ronna McDaniel told their supporters that “they” would be coming after “you” next. In this context, “they” meant the Biden administration, the FBI, the IRS, and “you” meant the average Trump supporter. Those conservatives and others described the search as a tipping point towards an American dictatorship.
One Ohio man, Ricky Shiffer, apparently took this message to heart. On Thursday, he reportedly donned body armor, armed himself with both a firearm and a nail gun, and tried to break into a FBI office in Cincinnati. After failing to breach the building, he fled under pursuit by federal agents and local police. According to those law enforcement officials, they shot and killed Shiffer during a standoff and gunfight with him. He was 43 years old.
I would like to believe that Republican officials and pundits could be persuaded to stop encouraging violence against their perceived adversaries. Since the fever did not break after January 6, however, I have little real hope that conservative leaders will step back from using violent rhetoric and inflammatory lies to spur outrage among their supporters. In the alternative, it would be nice if those same conservative leaders stopped getting their own supporters killed by police.
Shiffer made no efforts to hide his responsibility for what happened. In posts under his own name on Truth Social, a Trump-backed alternative to Twitter, he acknowledged that he tried to break into the FBI building. “Well, I thought I had a way through bulletproof glass, and I didn’t,” he wrote. “If you don’t hear from me, it is true I tried attacking the FBI, and it’ll mean either I was taken off the internet, the FBI got me, or they sent the regular cops while [sic.]” A grim feature of the twenty-first century is the ability to broadcast details of one’s attempted crimes while carrying them out.
Shiffer did not say exactly why he chose to attack the FBI building on Thursday, but some reasonable inferences can be made from other posts he made on Truth Social and on Twitter. In one post, he claimed he was at the Capitol on January 6. In others, he expressed thinly veiled enthusiasm for carrying out violence against the government. “Save ammunition, get in touch with the Proud Boys and learn how they did it in the Revolutionary War, because submitting to tyranny while lawfully protesting was never the American way,” he wrote.
Legitimizing the use of political violence in modern American life became a staple of his online writings. “Shut up about term limits,” he told another Twitter user in May. “Your vote doesn’t even count anymore.” In response to an article suggesting that Covid-19 cases could rise again this fall, Shiffer exhorted another Twitter user to “under no circumstances comply” and warned that “we didn’t get this country through peaceful compliance—or peaceful protest.”
After the Mar-a-Lago search, Shiffer began to more openly call for “combat” against federal authorities in retaliation. “We must not tolerate this one,” he allegedly declared. The day after the news, he suggested that he would travel to Palm Beach, Florida, where Mar-a-Lago is located, to join other “patriots” for some kind of rally or sympathy protest. According to The Washington Post, he advised that if the “feds” tried to interfere with the gathering, “kill them.” He described Trump’s foes as the real insurrectionists. “Damn straight insurrection against the people who usurped our government,” Shiffer claimed, according to The Washington Post. “I hope to see you there (I won’t be unarmed this time).”
Federal officials have avoided saying outright that Republicans and their allies are endangering FBI agents’ lives, but they have come fairly close to attributing the uptick in threats and violence towards them to Trumpworld’s rhetoric. “Unfounded attacks on the integrity of the FBI erode respect for the rule of law and are a grave disservice to the men and women who sacrifice so much to protect others,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said in a statement yesterday. “Violence and threats against law enforcement, including the FBI, are dangerous and should be deeply concerning to all Americans.”
What is most remarkable about Shiffer’s language is that it is somewhat unremarkable by the standards of contemporary right-wing discourse. He viewed the results of the 2020 election as corrupt and illegitimate, drawing upon lies spread by Trump and many of his Republican allies after the former president’s defeat two years ago. He framed his actions within a supposed tradition that includes the American Revolution, providing a historical and cultural justification to use violence two centuries later. And he implicitly disavowed the idea that he was instigating anything; in Shiffer’s eyes, it was Democrats or liberals or Biden administration officials, or whatever, who struck first.
The only significant difference is that Shiffer was brazenly open about his calls for violence on multiple occasions. Trump-aligned conservatives are typically not so blunt. They simply suggest that such actions might happen at some hazy, undefined date—one that grows closer with every step that Democrats take. I’ve written before on how some leading figures on the right often claim that the Second Amendment is a necessary bulwark against government “tyranny,” implicitly claiming it gives them the right to murder civil servants. They also often warn that their opponents’ actions amount to a “coup d’état,” as Trump claimed during his first impeachment proceedings in 2019, or are pushing the country towards a “civil war,” as some conservative commentators suggest from time to time.
Rarely do they phrase it explicitly as “Democrats are doing X, so you should do Y,” of course. That would be too clumsy. Instead they adopt a constant undercurrent of menace and violent potential in their rhetoric, insinuating that some sort of political violence might be simultaneously inevitable and justified. They are the decent, upstanding citizens in this worldview; their foes are the real extremists. “I will support a complete dismantling and elimination of the democrat brown shirts known as the FBI,” Arizona Representative Paul Gosar, who has previously attended white supremacist events and associated with Holocaust deniers, wrote on Twitter earlier this week. “This is too much for our republic to withstand.”
A healthy amount of this rhetoric precedes Trump’s rise in Republican politics and not every Republican lawmaker or official traffics in it. But the imagery—patriots are rising up against tyranny, guns are a last and legitimate means to protect liberty, Democrats are pushing the country to a breaking point—is so ubiquitous that I sometimes wonder if some Republican officials truly understand what they are saying. I also wonder how many of them fully accept that, for now, its principal effect has been to encourage some of their less healthy listeners to carry out acts of violence or attempt them, sometimes with tragic consequences for those they deceive.
Again, whatever hope I had that prominent conservatives would back off from rhetoric that appears to legitimize political violence largely faded after January 6, so I won’t bother pleading with Republicans to dial it back in general. Nor do I have any particular hope that Shiffer’s attempt would dissuade them from making further incendiary comments about the Mar-a-Lago search in particular. On Friday morning, for example, New York Representative Elise Stefanik eagerly decried what she claimed was the “weaponization of the Department of Justice and FBI against Joe Biden’s political opponent,” even though there is no evidence whatsoever of any partisan abuse. (That is, of course, unless you think Trump is above the law.)
And on Thursday night, Fox News host Brian Kilmeade identified a new potential threat to conservatives everywhere: an Internal Revenue Service that will receive a boost in funds and employees thanks to the Inflation Reduction Act. Kilmeade put perhaps the most incendiary spin possible on recent job postings for armed IRS agents, something that the agency has long had. “A little like James Bond, but instead of hunting down evil maniacs, these agents hunt down and kill middle-class taxpayers that don’t pay enough?” he asked. “It’s Joe Biden’s new army.” Hopefully the next Ricky Shiffer was watching something else last night.