Written by Steve Contorno
If the second impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump achieves one thing, it will be a lasting historical memory of the moment that the Republican Party openly embraced political violence as its brand. As Democrats lay out their case that Trump was “singularly responsible” for the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol, the “Grand Old Party” is on the verge of strangling American democracy.
This is the part where I’m supposed to say that it’s simply too soon to tell how the trial verdict will play out. Only it’s not too soon. Since only six Republican senators voted Tuesday in favor of moving forward with the constitutionally mandated trial, Trump’s acquittal on charges of incitement of a violent putsch are all but a forgone conclusion. A second acquittal for Trump on impeachment charges means only one thing: He will be back again in Washington. It also means there will likely be more American blood spilled over the Republican Party’s dark brand of politics in the years ahead. It is a brand that, on some days, may skew toward the “loony lies and conspiracy theories” of QAnon, as Republican Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell put it recently. On others, it may lean more toward the “race war” openly advocated by those in Trump’s neo-Nazi fan base, like Richard Spencer and the white supremacist Daily Stormer.
Even if one or two more Republican senators reject the asinine arguments advanced by Trump’s defense lawyers about the president’s free speech rights, that won’t change the fundamentals. A majority of Republican lawmakers have already indicated by vote, speech and deed that they stand by the violent vision Trump has sold to millions of Americans. Moreover, assuming Trump successfully navigates the pending civil lawsuits and ongoing criminal investigations into his business dealings and his blatant interference in the election count in Georgia, Trump will run again in 2024. And even if he steps back from center stage, Trump has plenty of potential Republican heirs apparent waiting to take up his pugilistic mantle.
Still, the next presidential election is four years away, so what can be said today about the future of tomorrow’s Republican Party? For many who followed the Democratic House managers’ presentation of their case against Trump this week, the graphic video recap of the Capitol siege provided a painful glimpse of what’s to come. But even that video pales in comparison to the ocean of digital detritus left behind by millions of users of Parler, the now-defunct social media platform of choice for Trump and the Republican Party’s far-right, extremist base.
In the month since the riot on Capitol Hill, my colleagues and I at Arizona State University and New America have spent countless hours collecting and sifting through raw data from the accounts of millions of Parler users. The cache of video, images, memes and posts is so voluminous that it will quite literally take months for us to make sense of it all. But our own preliminary analysis confirms the recent findings of our other colleagues at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab: There was nothing spontaneous or coincidental about the influence campaign that led to the Jan. 6 insurrection. As they note in their analysis of Trump’s emblematic #StoptheSteal online rallying cry, the sheer volume of engagement with articles that mentioned that hashtag—tens of millions of posts, reposts, comments, likes and “upvotes,” Parler’s version of “likes”—was overwhelming across Twitter, Facebook, Parler and other social media platforms.
In fact, we found evidence of a similar pattern in a small slice of 120 Parler user accounts we collected before Amazon took down the platform last month. The sentiments we saw expressed on Jan. 6 by the myriad Proud Boys, Oath Keepers and Three Percenters whose accounts we examined did not surprise us terribly. “Doesn’t look like they’re destroying the capital [sic]. Looks like they’re liberating it. God bless America,” remarked a user who manages the @TheProudBoys account, the group’s official Parler handle, as rioters pushed toward the Senate chambers. That singular post with an apparent photo from the scene garnered 14,000 upvotes and a total of 532,000 engagements on Parler.
What surprised us more is what we have found in a preliminary examination of raw data from some of those closest to Trump, including at least one of his potential political heirs apparent: retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn. It is there, in the digital annals of Trump’s former national security adviser, that flashes of the violent future of American politics become most clear. Although Flynn apparently joined Parler under the handle @GenFlynn in mid-July 2019—announcing that he was “coming in for a soft landing”—he only posted a handful of comments using that handle the rest of that year.
The tempo of Flynn’s posts picked up considerably, however, after June 23, 2020, when Flynn posted this single line: “Digital Soldiers are on the move (get ready!).” Within minutes, the post garnered 13,000 “echoes,” Parler’s version of reposts, and overall it garnered 27,000 upvotes. But that was only the beginning of the virtual life and times of #digitalsoldiers, which, according to at least one reliable aggregator of digital tags, appears most frequently alongside hallmark hashtags of the violent far right, like #redpill, #qarmy and #thegreatawakening.
Hundreds of more mentions of #digitalsoldiers, #digitalarmy and #digitalwarriors received tens of thousands of engagements on Parler, many peaking at key milestones in the timeline from the days leading up to Election Day on Nov. 3 and after. Then, on Dec. 31, 2020—a little less than 24 hours after Republican Sen. Josh Hawley declared his intent to challenge the certification of the Electoral College results—Flynn posted a lengthy quote from George Washington calling for Americans to rally as an army.
Yet, weirdly, only a week later, the @GenFlynn account went dark. We found that strange at first, and we continue to see signs that other influencers in Trump’s inner circle went dark on Parler on the two days, Jan. 5 and Jan. 6, when one would imagine that their accounts would be the most active. But a quick look at Telegram, the encrypted messaging app popular with underground movements around the world, hinted at one reason why Flynn, and perhaps others, may have turned down the volume on Parler immediately before and during the Capitol siege: They were busy turning up the volume of violent rhetoric on other channels. At least three Telegram accounts purporting to be linked to Flynn, including @GenFlynn, pushed out a flood of thousands of posts for several days after the Capitol siege, before Flynn began reposting on Parler again on Jan. 10. That Parler post from Flynn called for Trump to serve another four years as president and went viral beyond Parler, with associated hashtags that ricocheted across Facebook.
All these digital breadcrumbs may seem like mere dust in the vast scheme of the internet and may matter little to some Republicans sitting in the Senate chamber listening to Trump’s bumbling attorneys, if they are of consequence at all. But even this cursory glance at the digital influence campaign waged by Flynn, one of Trump’s most ardent and influential surrogates, indicates a great deal of forethought and planning went into the incitement to violence on Jan. 6.
In fact, as will be seen in the days and weeks to come from published research into the Parler cache and data on other social media platforms, the Republican Party’s online brand of extremism will only grow exponentially after Trump’s second acquittal. So too will the escalation of political violence the closer we get to the next major election. It is not what is behind us that we should worry about, but what’s ahead.