Opinion Interview with Daniel Klaidman | Are Threats Eroding Our Politics?

Not everyone can afford what Mitt Romney is paying for private security.
By | Apr 11, 2024
Interview, Opinion, Spring 2024

The new book Find Me the Votes: A Hard-Charging Georgia Prosecutor, a Rogue President, and the Plot to Steal an American Election by investigative journalists Daniel Klaidman and Michael Isikoff tells the colorful story of one of the more blatant and hair-raising attempts to overturn the 2020 election: Donald Trump’s phone call to the Georgia secretary of state demanding that he “find” 11,780 votes. The Georgia saga took a turn into melodrama with the revelation of a romance between Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis and her head prosecutor. But lost in the tabloid coverage is a darker story that emerged from Klaidman and Isikoff’s reporting, that of the pervasive culture of deadly threats that stalked virtually all the major players—in Georgia and elsewhere. Co-author Klaidman spoke with Amy E. Schwartz.

Were you surprised by the threats Fani Willis was subjected to as she prepared her case against Trump?

The nature and the volume of them shocked me. Virtually every Georgia public official involved with the election received threats of horrible violence—unspeakable sexual violence, to themselves and to their children, siblings, parents, in one case grandparents—but hers were worse.

They followed her everywhere, in calls to her personal cell phone, her office, her home office, her car. One day the phone rang in her SUV on her way to an important witness interview, and a creepy, digitally altered man’s voice was threatening to lynch her, rape her, using the n-word—and mentioning her two daughters’ unusual names, pronounced correctly, and their addresses. That really staggered her. A few days later, right before the indictment, her security staff noticed an assassination threat on a dark-web MAGA site that said, “Best time to shoot her is when she leaves the building.” So after the press conference they smuggled her out of the building using a body double in clothes like hers and a Kevlar vest while she changed into sweatpants and a baseball cap and went out the back. She moved four different times. And she’s just one person—every single person we interviewed, from the secretary of state to the lowliest poll worker, was targeted and threatened in this way. So many of these people did their jobs anyway, but will they be willing to do it again?

This seems like a big change in American political culture. How did it come about?

Obviously social media and the highly polarized political culture are contributors, but I think Trump himself drives a lot of the rhetoric of violence. The combination is unprecedented. I went to one of his rallies in Las Vegas in summer 2016, the one where he singled out the protester and said things like, “You know what they used to do with guys like that?…They’d be carried out on a stretcher.” You could see the crowd behind him seized by those words. Some were laughing, but with some, you could see they wanted to engage in violence.

Are threats preventing moderate Republicans from speaking out against Trump?

The fear of political violence is changing and distorting people’s behavior in all sorts of ways. I’ve heard from Republicans who are not willing to speak out because of the threats they get. Senator Mitt Romney acknowledged he was paying $5,000 a day to provide security for his family. But even in the Senate, most people don’t have Mitt Romney’s financial means.

Does a culture of threat erode civil society?

There was a kind of Republican stone wall in Georgia—people showed real courage. Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and his wife had to hire a team of ex-Navy SEALs to protect them, and yet Raffensperger did his job. Georgia Governor Brian Kemp was getting terrible threats, but he didn’t buckle to the pressure from Trump to call a special session of the legislature. I worry more about local poll workers. Some states have had trouble hiring poll workers because of the threat environment. Ruby Freeman and Shaye Moss, the election workers who famously had to go into hiding after Trump targeted them with false accusations, won’t be working the 2024 election. And the system depends on people like them.

Some effects are more insidious. We’ve just been through this legal soap opera with Fani Willis and Nathan Wade. In our book, we write about how she ended up hiring Wade after two prominent prosecutors in Georgia refused to take that job because of the threats. One, former Georgia governor Roy Barnes, said later in a hearing, “I wasn’t going to live with bodyguards for the rest of my life.”

Does this threatening environment affect Jews?

Jews have been safe and secure in the United States for a very long time, partly because of the rule of law and the processes that reinforce civil society. If that starts to crumble, Jews will not be safe. There is a feeling of insecurity among Jews in this country that I haven’t seen before, and it’s not just because of the rise in antisemitic acts but because the civic infrastructure that protects against them seems to be on shakier ground.

Your mother is a Holocaust survivor, right?

Yes. It’s part of the reason I wanted to do this book project—this sense of creeping authoritarianism wasn’t something I ever expected to see in America. Though I’m aware of how quickly countries can change, from my mother’s experience in Europe, I didn’t expect it here.

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