Resolute Square

"Swatting" - Signaling Democratic Decline And Illuminating Pathologies

"The ultimate goal of swatting is to stress institutions, create uncertainty in ways that intersect with conspiracy theories and lead people to feel that society is degenerating," writes Ruth Ben-Ghiat.
Published:January 11, 2024

Published with the generous permission of Ruth Ben-Ghiat. Read all of her outstanding writing in her Lucid newsletter.

By Ruth Ben-Ghiat

You may have heard about the rash of politically motivated swatting incidents against individuals seen as "anti-Trump": Judge Tanya Chutkan, Special Prosecutor Jack Smith, and anti-Trump commentators such as Rick Wilson have all been subjected to them. Swatting occurs when someone contacts law enforcement or emergency services claiming there is a shooting or other violent crime ongoing at the target's residence. The person who targeted Smith, for example, filed a false report that Smith had shot his wife.

The goal of swatting is to endanger the targeted individual by setting off an armed (SWAT) response. '“Just survived another swatting attempt,” Wilson wrote on X on Jan. 9. “The team from the @LeonSheriff was absolutely professional and courteous and I’m sorry someone wasted their time trying to get me and my loved ones killed.”

Some of the swatting episodes form part of the wave of threats delivered by supporters of former president Donald Trump to anyone who is seen as impeding their idol's progress to the presidency, including by holding him accountable by legal means. Those targeted for swatting receive other kinds of threats as well: Judge Chutkan also got a phone call from a woman threatening to kill her "if Trump does not get elected in 2024."

Yet swatting victims span the political spectrum. Far-right politician Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene was targeted by a man who claimed he had shot his girlfriend at her home (this was one of a reported eight swatting incidents involving Greene). Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft had to exit his house with his hands in the air after a caller reported that someone had shot Ashcroft’s wife and others in the residence. And former speaker of the Arizona House of Representatives Rusty Bowers, a Republican who refused to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election in his state, was told of a call that claimed a woman had been murdered in his home.

Law enforcement at Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft’s come, Jefferson City, MO, Jan. 8, 2023. KSDK News.

Swatting shines a light on several pathologies of American politics and society. As the examples above suggest, domestic violence and fantasies of killing women seem to be prominent in the swatter universe. And where would the swatter be without guns? Shooting is the murder method of choice for such threats.

Anti-government extremism also factors in, given that swatting aims to disrupt the smooth functioning of law enforcement and emergency services. Such extremists have been tolerated and accepted within America to a degree very rare in other countries.

Swatting increases in a declining democracy because it is what chaos agents do: it is the equivalent of the information warfare tactic of “flooding the zone with shit,” to quote Steve Bannon. The goals are to debase the truth (is this a real emergency, or a fake one?), expose the swatter’s targets to psychological duress and possible physical harm; smear their reputations; and exhaust the resources of law enforcement officials, who are distracted from other operations and investigations.

The ultimate goal of swatting is to stress institutions, create uncertainty in ways that intersect with conspiracy theories (was there a shooting, or did Jack Smith's allies in the "deep state" cover up his crime?) and lead people to feel that society is degenerating. This is the perfect climate to create an appetite for the strongman “I Alone Can Fix It” brand of governance.

"I couldn't believe it was happening to me," said Ashcroft, who described the situation as "surreal." "They don't know if it's real or not and I think [the police] were very professional."

Ashcroft, a Trump loyalist who is currently talking about removing Trump's competitor President Joe Biden from the ballot, perhaps does not want to see that his cult leader has made a career out of raising questions about whether events “are real or not.” Ashcroft will likely find out just how misplaced his support for Trump has been. The leader he slavishly backs has unleashed a climate of violence that cannot easily be tamed, and has fanned the flames of extremism with unpredictable outcomes and consequences.

So, of course it is happening to Ashcroft. With an individual such as Trump, who only cares about himself and views everyone as expendable, no one is safe. Trump’s behavior on Jan. 6 should have made that clear to Republicans, but the party is now deep into authoritarian leader cult territory.

At some point, after many more threats and more fake and real violence, Republicans such as Ashcroft won't be able to continue to dwell in denial. And then the next chapter of this American drama will begin.