The Right is Using the FBI’s Mar-a-Lago Search to Martyr Trump and Maintain the Violent Myth of the Big Lie

Image: Gilbert Mercier/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

On Monday, the FBI searched Mar-a-Lago, Donald Trump’s home in Florida, during which, according to the former president, federal officials even “broke into my safe.” While there are reports that the warrant for the search is related to classified documents Trump looted from the White House, neither he, nor the FBI has released the warrant itself. 

The reaction from the American Right was as swift and vengeful as one would’ve anticipated. Influencers goaded their followers with talk about war, banana republics, and an FBI run amok under the sway of Biden’s administration (for the record, the Director of the FBI, Christopher Wray, was appointed by former President Trump). 

Today, former George W. Bush staffer Scott Jennings told CNN’s John Berman that the FBI’s search of Mar-a-Lago instantly turned the former president into a martyr, galvanizing his supporters and pushing him to the lead of the pack in the early jockeying for the GOP presidential nomination in 2024: 

If you don’t convict Donald Trump now, you have martyred Donald Trump. . . You have basically guaranteed him the nomination for the Republican Party in 2024, and you’re going to give him a big weapon to go after Joe Biden or, you know, whatever Democrat emerges in 2024 if they don’t convict him.

While it’s wrongheaded to worry about riling up Trump’s base if there’s evidence he committed criminal offenses, I think Jennings is right to a degree. The stakes are high in this case—for Attorney General Merrick Garland, President Joe Biden, and for the American people. He’s also correct in saying that this will galvanize the American Right behind Trump and propel him even further ahead of his GOP rivals as the favorite for the 2024 nomination. 

Father Frank Pavone, national director of the anti-abortion Priests for Life and one of the most influential and outspoken Catholic supporters of Trump, tweeted Monday night: 

President Trump: Please announce tomorrow that you’re running for President in 2024. We are more ready than ever!”

Blaze TV host Chad Prather was even more explicit in his call to action

“Trump 2024. It’s time to shove MAGA so far up your ass that you see orange for the rest of your miserable pronoun confused lives.”

Representative Paul Gosar also shared his support for the former president, while also seemingly calling for the defining of law enforcement: 

“The FBI raid on Trump’s home tells us one thing.

Failure is not an option. 

We must destroy the FBI. 

We must save America. 

I stand with Donald J. Trump.”

Clearly, Monday’s events energized Trump’s base. Rallies were held outside Mar-a-Lago among other locations. Conservative influencer Jenny Beth Martin called on Trump supporters to wear their MAGA hats and to hang their Trump flags in a show of support. 

Beyond the tweets and rallies, however, it’s worth paying attention to what the martyrdom of Trump will accomplish. What does martyring Trump do for him as a symbol of MAGA Nation, the GOP, and American conservatism writ large? In order to dissect the mechanics of this, let’s go back a few days to the bizarre and startling display of MAGA martyrdom at this year’s CPAC. 

In order to bring to life the myth of the Big Lie and the fallout from the January 6th insurrection, CPAC organizers commissioned an exhibit that portrayed one of the J6 rioters alone in a jail cell weeping for his nation. Tess Owen, writing for Vice, describes the scene this way: 

As dozens of onlookers stood by, some with tears in their eyes, a barefoot man in an orange jumpsuit and red MAGA cap sobbed in a cage in a convention center in Dallas. Attendees at CPAC, the massive annual conservative activist conference, were given Bluetooth headphones, emblazoned with the word “silence,” where they were invited to listen to audio accounts from January 6 defendants who have been jailed in relation to the Capitol riot. 

According to Owen, the line to see the J6 Jail exhibit was hundreds of people long. While an actor played the role for the conference, on Friday the jailed man was an actual J6 rioter, Brandon Straka, who participated in the violent attack on the nation’s Capitol in order to stop certification of the 2020 presidential election. For most of us, he represents a traitorous faction of Americans who disrupted the peaceful transfer of power and almost dismantled our republic through a violent coup attempt. 

However, for those at CPAC—and millions more across the nation—he’s a martyr in the story founded on the Big Lie; the story that pits them against the godless interlopers who’ve stolen ‘their’ country. Videos show Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene praying inside the cage with Straka while onlookers recite prayers and sob in the background. It’s a stunning MAGA ritual re-enactment of the imprisonment of one of the hundreds of rioters who’ve been jailed for taking part in the J6 insurrection. 

As I’ve written before, J6 wasn’t the finale of the story that MAGA Nation re-created at CPAC. It was a beginning, not an end. And martyrs are key to keeping the story alive. Here’s how I put it in my forthcoming book, Preparing for War: The Extremist History of White Christian Nationalism and What Comes Next

What if January 6 was not the end of an era but the beginning of one. What if it was not the last gasp of a movement devoted to a leader on his way out but the start of a more extreme iteration of MAGA terrorism? What if January 6 is not history we are now viewing safely via the rearview mirror but the basis for a new civil war? Trump may have lost the presidency, and the January 6 insurrection may not have prevented the certification of the 2020 election. But these setbacks, like the Goldwater defeat in 1964, do not spell the end of White Christian nationalism. They do not represent the finale of MAGA Nation. Instead, these temporary defeats may be exactly what the movement needs to overcome America as we know it.

Since the insurrection, more than 700 alleged rioters have been arrested. Some were still imprisoned as of 2022 on felony charges of conspiracy. In the eyes of many Trump supporters, the jailed insurrectionists have become political prisoners. “Our hearts and minds are with the people being persecuted so unfairly,” former president Trump said in a statement in September 2021. According to Trump, they are being unfairly treated for their participation in a “protest concerning the Rigged Presidential Election.”

In the summer of 2021, Representatives Paul Gosar, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Louie Gohmert, and Matt Gaetz made headlines when they tried to visit the jailed rioters to check up on the conditions of their confinement and ensure their safety. “We have concerns about reports of the conditions of the prison where these detainees are being held and whether, in fact, there have been instances of abuse inflicted by other prisoners or guards,” Gaetz, Greene, Gosar, and Gohmert said in a joint statement. 

Madison Cawthorn, the twenty-five-year-old freshman congressperson from North Carolina, said he would like to “try and bust them out” of prison. On November 5, 2021, QAnon supporter and Georgia representative Marjorie Taylor Greene visited the rioters in jail—the “Patriot Wing,” as she called it. According to Greene, the prisoners are receiving “virtually no medical care, very poor food quality, and being put through reeducation which most of them are rejecting.” In perhaps the most startling declaration, the Republican Party labeled the actions of rioters on January 6 as “legitimate political discourse.”

Making martyrs out of the jailed rioters is strategic. Martyrs are the exemplars of myth. They are the figures who embody the virtues that the community must emulate in order to create their ideal world. As the scholar of right-wing movements Daniel Koehler says, dying for the cause is “usually connected to a heroic fight to the death against ideological enemies, who in the end are responsible for the martyr’s death or ideological steadfastness.” 

The jailed rioters are the Big Lie’s martyrs, celebrated for their suffering at the hands of what many on the American Right view as a fraudulent government. Now, Trump has joined their ranks. In the minds of his supporters, the FBI search of his property can amount to nothing more than an act of, as Steve Bannon put it in his CPAC speech, “political and ideological war.” 

Despite calls from conservative Christians such as the writer David French and GOP politicians such as Senator Tim Scott to withhold judgment until more details are made public, for MAGA Nation and the majority of the contemporary GOP, serving a warrant to the former president can only be explained as a political hit job meant to destroy the de facto leader of their movement. In their minds, there is no possibility that he actually committed crimes. No idea that there might be a legitimate reason for an investigation. No trust in the institutions, processes, or leaders which led to this unprecedented search of a former president’s home. There is no faith left on the American Right—only conflict and a battle to the death for the United States of America.

Here’s what Trump himself said at CPAC just a few days ago: 

America is on the edge of an abyss. And our movement is the only force on Earth that can save it. This movement right here. What we do in the next few months and the next few years will determine whether American civilization will collapse or fail, or whether it will triumph and thrive, frankly like never before. This is no time for complacency. We cannot be complacent. We have to seize this opportunity to deal with the radical left socialist lunatics and fascists. And we have to hit them very, very hard. Has to be a crippling defeat, because our country cannot take it.

Near the end of his two-hour speech filled with white Christian nationalist dog whistles, Trump clarified that the country rightfully belongs only to a select group of Americans: 

But no matter how big or powerful the corrupt radicals we are fighting against may be, no matter how menacing they appear, we must never forget that this nation does not belong to them. This nation belongs to you. This is your home. This is your heritage. This is your country that your American ancestors won with their own courage, defended with their own blood and built with their own hands. 

By telling the story of the Big Lie, Trump legitimizes his followers’ grievance. But it goes further than that. The myth legitimizes violence against those who are trying to ‘steal’ the country that his supporters’ ancestors supposedly “won with their own courage, defended with their own blood, etc.” And Trump’s martyrdom, at least in the eyes of the American Right, justifies vigilantism, political vengeance, and even civil war. 

“Tomorrow is war,” tweeted the conservative podcaster Steven Crowder, “sleep well.”

Fox News host Jesse Waters put it this way

“I think there is going to be some more action you are going to see out on the streets from the base after they see this break tonight… They’ve had it with what this corrupt government and what the FBI has done.”

In online forums, Trump supporters wrote, “Lock and load,” “Are we not in a civil war yet?” and “They will cry out in authentic pain soon.”

Many are wondering if the social media rhetoric from politicians, influencers, and the Trump family will lead to actual violence in American streets or public buildings. Will Trump’s martyrdom syndrome mean the shedding of more blood and more loss of life? In my mind, it’s not a question of if, but of how, where, and to what extent

We live in an era when the Big Lie is the foundation of the MAGA movement and January 6 is viewed as the first battle in the war for the country—not metaphorically, not just for its ‘soul’ or to be elected to lead, but for control of the country. Whether Trump is indicted in the coming weeks or not, in my view the question isn’t whether there will be another attack on our democracy—the question is when.