Trump lionizes Jan. 6 rioters as 'warriors.' Could the dog whistle be any louder?

FILE - In this Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, file photo, violent rioters storm the Capitol, in Washington. New details from the deadly riot of Jan. 6 are contained in a previously undisclosed document prepared by the Pentagon for internal use that was obtained by the Associated Press and vetted by current and former government officials. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)
Trump supporters storm the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Many came armed with pistols, knives, baseball bats, metal pipes, stun guns or bear spray, and used them to attack police officers. (John Minchillo / Associated Press )

Donald Trump says the rioters who assaulted police officers in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot are "warriors." That's not just wrong; it's dangerous.

On Jan. 6, 2021, more than 2,000 supporters of then-President Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol, hoping to stop the certification of President Biden’s election. Many came armed with pistols, knives, baseball bats, metal pipes, stun guns, or bear spray, and used them to attack police. Some 140 officers were assaulted.

In the ensuing three years, prosecutors have charged more than 1,400 of the rioters. More than 100 have been charged with causing serious injury to an officer or using a dangerous weapon. Several dozen are in jail awaiting trial.

Daniel Rodriguez of Fontana pleaded guilty to stunning a police officer in the neck with a taser. A federal judge sentenced him to 12 years in prison.

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Peter Schwartz of Owensboro, Ky., attacked police officers with pepper spray and a folding chair. He got 14 years, largely because he had 38 prior criminal convictions.

Christopher Quaglin of North Brunswick, N.J., tackled a police officer and choked him. A judge appointed by Trump called him “a menace to our society” and sentenced him to 12 years.

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For months, Trump has called defendants like them “hostages” and “political prisoners,” as if they were being held unfairly by a repressive regime — a grotesque lie meant to attack the judicial system Trump wants to destroy.

But recently he gave the Jan. 6 attackers a more heroic title.

"Those J6 warriors — they were warriors,” the former president said at a rally in Las Vegas. “But they were really, more than anything else, they're victims of what happened. All they were doing is protesting a rigged election.”

That’s quite a promotion. “Warriors” is a word Americans generally apply to members of the armed forces, not militants who attack police officers with bear spray.

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Trump has crossed a line from defending the Jan. 6 detainees to lionizing them.

He has also promised to pardon most or all of them if he regains the White House.

The big problem isn’t how many he would pardon in 2025.

The problem is the message he’s sending to extremists who might be tempted to act in 2024: If you fight for me, you, too, can count on getting off — and on being hailed as a hero.

That’s a pretty loud dog whistle — only one step removed from “stand back and stand by,” Trump’s instruction to the extremist Proud Boys during the 2020 campaign. (They stood by until Jan. 6, when they showed up to batter down the Capitol’s doors.)

Trump’s praise for the rioters has come with an ugly escalation of his language on other themes.

He has denounced his opponents as “vermin.” a word that usually suggests extermination. He has claimed that migrants from Latin America, Asia and Africa are “poisoning our blood,” language once used by segregationists and Nazis.

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And he has talked about taking revenge on Biden and others who he claims “rigged” his conviction by a New York jury for 34 felonies in a state court. (There is no evidence that the Biden administration played any role.)

Scholars of terrorism find all this worrisome.

“His message is escalating,” said Jon Lewis of George Washington University. “He’s saying: 'We are warriors, and we have to stop this tyranny.' It sounds intended to get his base ready for an impending conflict that will require violence.”

Trump’s promise of pardons serves a similar purpose, said Jacob Ware of the Council on Foreign Relations. “Prosecutions have two goals: punishment and deterrence. The [Jan. 6 defendants] have been punished, but Trump’s language has eroded any deterrence.”

It comes at a dangerous time. In its annual threat assessment, the Department of Homeland Security warned that any presidential election increases the risk of domestic terrorism.

The groups that led the assault on Jan. 6 have retreated in the face of prosecutions, but they haven’t gone away. Members of the Proud Boys have turned up at Trump rallies in North Carolina and New Jersey, apparently to recruit new members. Other organizations, including the Active Clubs network — successor to the California-based white supremacist Rise Above Movement — have been growing.

Federal law enforcement agencies have stepped up their attention to those threats, but they have sought to keep a low profile.

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“There’s a lot of concern [in the federal government} about election violence,” said Ware, coauthor of a recent book on domestic extremism, “God, Guns and Sedition.”

“My worry is that conspiracy theories are so deeply entrenched in the [pro-Trump] movement, anything the federal government tries to do will be seen as an escalation. Efforts to protect vote counters will be portrayed as efforts to 'protect the steal.' Education efforts will be dismissed as ‘fake news,’" he said. "So it may be more effective for state and local governments and civil society [nongovernmental organizations] to take the lead.”

One focus of state efforts will be protecting vote-counting sites, especially in swing states with a history of slow tabulation: Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

The first step, though, is to take the problem seriously.

This isn’t just Trump being Trump.

He claims to be a champion of law and order, but he’s in favor of violence if it will help him take power — and he’s proclaiming it in plain sight.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.