Will Trump indictment in Georgia draw far right protesters?

Domestic extremist experts think there is a low probability of trouble, but advise caution
Ian Smith holds a Trump flag as he passes the Fulton County Courthouse on Friday, August 4, 2023. Road closures are expected to begin next week ahead of possible charges against former President Donald Trump from the Fulton County district attorney’s office. (Natrice Miller/ Natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

Ian Smith holds a Trump flag as he passes the Fulton County Courthouse on Friday, August 4, 2023. Road closures are expected to begin next week ahead of possible charges against former President Donald Trump from the Fulton County district attorney’s office. (Natrice Miller/ Natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Fulton County officials are bracing for possible demonstrations if former President Donald Trump is indicted in Atlanta later this month.

District Attorney Fani Willis issued warnings to county officials to “stay alert” and “make decisions that keep your staff safe,” citing threatening or harassing messages she and her staff have received since opening the grand jury investigation into his conduct around the 2020 presidential election.

However, experts who follow domestic extremism think there is a low probability that the indictments will result in any real disruption or violence. Far-right groups have been hobbled by disorganization, lack of access to social platforms and a leadership vacuum. Some were also disillusioned after Trump failed to help them as they faced criminal charges following the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Amy Cooter, research director for Middlebury Institute of International Studies’ Center on Terrorism, Extremism and Counterterrorism, said the anti-government groups and far-right individuals she studies are upset at the various criminal probes targeting Trump, but not enough to muster their troops.

“Among the groups I have my eyes on, a lot of them feel like these indictments are not only political, but performative,” she said. And many think he will eventually beat the charges, she said.

Cooter said she would not predict much of a turnout from people riled by a Trump indictment in Atlanta, but she would not rule out the “low odds” possibility of disruption or violence caused by a small, insular group or an individual.

Despite Trump’s predictions of mass protests and disruption, his three prior court appearances in New York, Miami and Washington D.C. have drawn small groups of demonstratorsboth in support and in opposition to the former president. Apart from some heated words, they have been largely peaceful. Missing have been the crowds of thousands who turned violent and stormed the Capitol.

Georgia State University professor Tony Lemieux, who studies violent extremism, said the biggest threat to public safety is that a large number of Americans have been fed a steady diet of misinformation and propaganda on television and the internet about Trump, the 2020 elections, and the criminal investigations into his conduct.

“You got a crowd that is pretty ginned up and they don’t have much faith in the institutions, and they are treating this in a way that elevates Trump, not just as a president but as a savior who is being unjustly persecuted,” he said.

When such an aggrieved group gets together, the results can be dangerous, as the nation saw on Jan. 6, he said.

But, like Cooter, Lemieux said he thinks there is a low probability of a large, coordinated demonstration in Atlanta.

“I don’t think the indictment itself gives us that kind of scale and platform,” he said. “This is just an indictment. It’s not a conviction, and I think they have taken it as a fait accompli. ... This isn’t coming as any big surprise.”

More serious steps in the legal process — such as the start of a trial or a jury verdict — might present more of a challenge to public safety, he said.

Another factor against a large, organized demonstration is the lack of cohesive leadership.

In the days and weeks after the presidential election, far-right leaders, like conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and white nationalist internet celebrity Nick Fuentes, encouraged their followers to attend a Nov. 18, 2020, rally at the state Capitol to protest the Georgia election results. Since then, many of those central figures have faced personal or legal problems or have been distracted by internal feuds.

Jones filed for bankruptcy in December following civil judgements totaling nearly $1.5 billion he was ordered to pay to the families of the Sandy Hook Elementary mass shooting for lies he broadcast about the tragedy.

Fuentes publicly feuded earlier this year with alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos. And activist Ali Alexander, who has claimed a central role in the Stop the Steal movement, has been embroiled in a scandal over allegedly soliciting nude photos from underaged boys. Alexander reportedly apologized on his Telegram channel for “any inappropriate messages sent over the years.”

Former Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio, who also turned up at the Georgia protest, has since been convicted of seditious conspiracy in the Jan. 6 riot. His sentencing is scheduled for later this month and he faces years in federal prison.

The Trump indictments also have come in a period where extremist groups have retreated from public spaces – both online and in the real world – after being kicked off of mainstream social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, Cooter said.

“That was key to taking the wind out of their sails,” she said.

That deplatforming cuts both ways, Cooter said. It’s more difficult now to gather intelligence about extremists’ relative strength and plans as they have moved to darker or more obscure corners of the internet.

“Some of the more extremist elements are operating in places that are hard to observe,” she said. “I think that some groups have reverted back to meeting exclusively in person.”

One point of concern is the possibility that a small, fringe group from the far right could attract counter-demonstrators from the far left. “That’s where it can blow up,” Lemieux said. “If the fascists show up, the antifascists are going to show up. It’s part of the deal.”