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Thin crowds

Trump’s Fascist Troops Have Dispersed, Not Disappeared

The big crowd in Miami for Trump’s arraignment failed to materialize. But his foot soldiers are at work across the country.

A man holds up a stick with a t-shirt attached to the top that says NOT GUILTY under a photo of Trump.
Giorgio Viera/AFP/Getty Images
Trump supporters gather outside the Wilkie D. Ferguson Jr. U.S. Courthouse before former President Donald Trump’s arraignment in Miami, on June 13.

Outside President Trump’s arraignment at a federal courthouse in Miami yesterday, a guy with a pig head on a pike got there early. So did a woman in a fluorescent yellow high-viz vest with a big Q on the back. But the violence some feared failed to materialize. And the final turnout in front of the courthouse was nowhere near the crowds of 50,000 rallying in support of their leader that local police officials said they were prepared to take on. 

The threat that wasn’t was easy to mock. “Nice turnout Trump, you clown,” jeered Bill Mitchell, a MAGA Twitter guy turned DeSantis supporter. “There’s no shame in not having people protest your arrest and indictment,” Rachel Maddow said on her Tuesday night coverage of the paltry showing. “Except when you have begged people to.” 

But there is another factor, as reporting ahead of Trump’s court appearance showed: Some of the groups who had been key to turning January 6 from a protest into a riot were busy closer to home. While it’s true that the low turnout would seem like a bad look for a strongman, it does not mean that Trump has lost the ability to call his flock to his aid. In truth, they are already mobilized—just elsewhere, and no less in service to all that Trump stands for.

Trump had issued an invitation, posting on June 9, “SEE YOU IN MIAMI ON TUESDAY!!!”—much, much closer to the date than his “will be wild” tweet for January 6—and was able to draw hundreds of people to the courthouse for a relatively routine protest. But far-right researchers and extremism experts had cautioned ahead of the hearing that the turnout and intensity expected in Miami may amount to little. As a recent publication from the human rights group Institute for Strategic Dialogue, or ISD, explained, there were plenty of indicators that Trump supporters would largely stay home: Absent a specific call to action and resources to support protesters, and without trusted figures and influencers amplifying the call to a broader audience, a mass demonstration is unlikely get off the ground. 

“Potential protests associated with increasingly polarized political causes continue to be subjects of mass-media hype cycles, influencing and engendering hysteria around the event,” wrote ISD’s Jared Holt and Katherine Keneally. These hype cycles, they explain, are driven by reports that “lift hand-picked comments from the internet—such as talks of civil war or fantasies of executing politicians—and strip them of crucial context.” 

What follows such flawed predictions is closer to what we saw in images coming out of Tuesday’s protests at the courthouse. Journalists on the scene reported they at times outnumbered the actual MAGA supporters. News cameras captured a riot of other outlets’ tripods, corralled by bike cops—far from anything resembling a replay of January 6. 

Still, that led some commentators to assume Trump was flailing. “This flop is a clear sign of weakness for the authoritarian populist,” noted MSNBC columnist Zeeshan Aleem. But the front lines were never going to be in Miami—nor in lower Manhattan, where only around 50 to 60 pro-Trump  protesters turned up in March for his indictment there, nor (as many anticipate an upcoming indictment on yet more criminal charges) in Atlanta. The front lines are much closer to home, in conflicts kicked off by Trump supporters in school board meetings, outside public libraries, and constantly—at all hours—on the phone in your pocket.

Far-right extremism mainstreamed during the Trump presidency. In the aftermath, it has moved “from the mainstream to the main street,” as Susan Corke, director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, wrote in a 2022 report released last week. “Extremist actors—often armed—brought hatred into our daily lives and public spaces, protesting LGBTQ inclusion, reproductive rights and classroom discussions of systemic racism.” 

These days, you are more likely to find the Proud Boys menacing a Drag Story Hour or Pride event than responding to a call from Trump. Just days before Trump’s court appearance in Miami, Proud Boys descended on a school board meeting in Glendale, California, in an attempt to intimidate the board from voting to recognize Pride Month. It’s part of an escalation that extremism researchers have been monitoring: Groups like the Proud Boys, Patriot Front, and others  have increased their participation in anti-LGBTQ actions threefold from 2021 to 2022, the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project reported. 

It seems right now that anywhere expressing support for queer and trans communities—from formerly routine local Pride rallies to the aisles of Target—has become the front line of extremist activity. This extends out to the information war on TikTok and Twitter, where an endless stream of content paints LGBTQ people—particularly trans people—as monsters. We may not see mass mobs of fascists so much on cable news—we may even imagine this all as waged by lone or isolated extremists—but their actions are no less disconnected from the mob power Trump flexed at the Capitol on January 6.

This is the path political violence has followed for decades in the United States, though in different forms. Veterans have been a reliable source of trained-up recruits for white power and militia groups, as historian Kathleen Belew documents in her book Bring the War Home. Belew argued against the idea of the lone wolf, emphasizing the far right’s turn toward a strategy of “leaderless resistance”: Like Timothy McVeigh, who bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995 and who was in turn inspired by the ATF raid and subsequent destruction of the Branch Davidian compound at Waco, Texas. Those who were mobilized and perhaps further radicalized by January 6 have also gone home, bringing the MAGA fight with them. 

The divide in this slow civil war, as journalist Jeff Sharlet has called it, doesn’t run between North and South, but within our own communities. When someone like Louisiana Republican Congressman Clay Higgins takes to Twitter to summon his own militia (he has previously identified with that movement) in cringey military jargon, it can be tempting to mock him, Sharlet wrote for The Atlantic just ahead of the Miami protest. “Such are the means by which some imagine the center still holds.” But humor, he noted, is no “antidote to fascism, a term that more and more historians and political scientists say at last applies to a mass American movement, even as many news organizations still shy away from it.” 

The circuslike scene following Trump around the country is easy to laugh at—and it makes sense that people want to, for the alternative is a far scarier proposition. The kind of violence seen at the Capitol one and a half years ago should not be presumed dead simply because it has reorganized itself, diffused itself, and taken up occupation in communities across the U.S. There is also some hope in that: Rather than steel ourselves for January 6, 2025, we could begin defending ourselves from the threat of fascism where we live, confronting it, unwinding it, before it explodes again.