President Joe Biden, left, and Sen. Lindsey Graham.
CNN  — 

America’s political climate is hitting a late summer boiling point, as a leading GOP senator warns of street violence if Donald Trump is indicted and President Joe Biden charges that his predecessor’s party is consumed by “semi-fascism.”

The blunt rhetoric previews what promises to be one of the most bitter midterm election campaigns in modern times, which could again test national unity and the voting system, following Trump’s falsehoods about a stolen election in 2020.

Predictions of violence and warnings of extremism on the march are especially jarring given the mayhem that unfolded after the last time America voted for president, when insurrectionists incited by Trump ransacked the US Capitol and threatened to fracture the bedrock institutions of American democracy.

An already toxic political atmosphere ahead of November’s midterms has been further poisoned by the furious reaction to the search of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort and residence, including threats to the FBI, which was looking for missing classified documents. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham warned on Fox on Sunday of “riots in the street” if the ex-President faces charges over his retention of classified documents. After a day of negative reaction to his comment, he insisted on Monday that he rejects violence.

The dark history of what happened in January 2021, when Trump supporters used violence to try to overthrow a democratic election, means that the contextual background of Graham and Biden’s remarks is hardly comparable. Some observers may see the attack on the US Capitol as more than sufficient justification for the President’s warning. But Biden’s outspokenness also underscores the incendiary environment in which the midterm elections will unfold.

The fraught situation has been exacerbated by Trump’s use of Republican primaries to position fellow election deniers for state and national office, which has meant his lie that he was illegitimately ousted from power will pollute another national election.

All this comes as recent developments, including the Supreme Court’s overturning of the constitutional right to an abortion and Biden’s victories on Capitol Hill, have intensified a once sleepy lead up to November, emphasizing the divide down the middle of the country exemplified by the wafer-thin Democratic majorities that Republicans have hoped to overturn.

Biden uses Trump as a springboard for midterm campaign launch

Biden, after months beset by low approval ratings, soaring inflation and struggles to pull his party together, is getting a jump on the midterm campaign, not waiting until next week’s fabled Labor Day kickoff. The President will travel to Wilkes-Barre, close to his hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania, on Tuesday to highlight what he sees as GOP extremism, including calls by some Trump allies to defund the FBI after the search of the ex-President’s Palm Beach, Florida, home. According to White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, the President will make clear that “congressional Republicans, that extreme MAGA agenda … is a threat to the rule of law.”

In another appearance in Pennsylvania on Thursday – this time at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, the cradle of US democracy – Biden will signal a no-holds-barred effort to turn the 2022 campaign into a referendum on Trump, and a Republican Party he says is consumed by his predecessor’s autocratic extremism, instead of on his own economic and political performance. Biden’s prime-time speech will try to rekindle his winning 2020 election theme that the struggle against Trump represents a battle for America’s “soul.”

At any other time, Biden’s comment last week that the GOP was hostage to an extreme MAGA (“Make America Great Again”) philosophy “that is like semi-fascism” would have been an extraordinary thing to say. But despite a call, delivered on CNN’s “State of the Union” from New Hampshire’s GOP Gov. Chris Sununu for an apology, it did not seem out of keeping in a Trumpian age when standards of decorum have been shattered.

Republicans will likely use the President’s comment to argue he harbors an elitist’s disdain for swathes of conservative Americans who abhor violence but disagree with his policies. The GOP similarly adopted Hillary Clinton’s dismissal of many of Trump’s supporters as a “basket of deplorables” during the 2016 campaign as a badge of honor.

In one hint that the new language, which Biden has not repeated, could backfire, Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan – who faces reelection in New Hampshire this fall – agreed that it was troublesome that some people saw violence as a way of settling disputes. But she said that Biden’s comments, which contrasted sharply with his message of national reconciliation when he took office, “painted with way too broad a brush,” WMUR reported on Monday.

New fears for safety of FBI agents

While Biden’s rhetoric might be seen by some as inflammatory, his remark is hardly equivalent to the long record of outlandish rhetoric served up by Trump and his allies, not to mention the ex-President’s record of inciting violence.

Months after the January 6, 2021, insurrection, and after the search of his home, Trump’s verbal attacks on the FBI have raised safety fears for agents. In Cincinnati this month, an armed man tried to enter a bureau field office amid fury whipped up by Trump world over the Mar-a-Lago search. In fact, Biden’s warnings that the ex-President represents an extremist threat to American democracy often seems borne out by Trump’s behavior. After all, no other previous president tried to defy the will of voters to stay in power, called a mob to Washington and told them to “fight like Hell” over an election he said was stolen.

It is against the memory of that dark day in history that Graham’s comments caused shockwaves in Washington on Monday.

The South Carolina senator said it would be outrageous if Trump were indicted for holding classified documents at Mar-a-Lago while former Democratic nominee Clinton escaped with a rebuke over classified material found on her private email server from her time as secretary of state. There are fair questions about whether the Justice Department took the right steps in the search of the home of a former president and potential 2024 presidential candidate. So far, however, most evidence suggests that the search warrant obtained from a judge followed proper legal procedure and months of efforts to get Trump to hand back secret documents that were apparently poorly secured at his resort.

Graham didn’t wait for the outcome of the investigation. And his remarks appear to imply that any attempt to subject Trump to accountability could cause violence – a scenario that would effectively fracture the principle that no one is above the law. His comments were especially puzzling given that Graham is a former chairman and current senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The South Carolina Republican is a regular golf partner of Trump, and has proven to be deeply loyal to the former President after initially condemning his role in inciting the insurrection. Graham is also fighting to block a subpoena requiring his testimony to a grand jury in an investigation into attempts to overthrow Biden’s 2020 election win in Georgia.

“If they try to prosecute President Trump for mishandling classified information after Hillary Clinton set up a server in her basement, there literally will be riots in the street. I worry about our country,” Graham said on Fox.

On Monday, Graham told CNN affiliate WCSC in Charleston that there would be a double standard if Trump was charged after Clinton was not. “I reject violence. I’m not calling for violence. Violence is not the answer, but I’m just telling you,” he said.

As the January 6 assault on the Capitol showed, this is hardly a hypothetical argument.

“To me, this is the equivalent of ‘stand back and stand by’ all over again,” Olivia Troye, a former homeland security and counterterrorism adviser to former Vice President Mike Pence, told CNN’s Poppy Harlow on Monday evening.

Troye was drawing an analogy to the moment in a presidential debate in 2020 when Trump offered that similar message to Proud Boys extremists. One member of the group, Joshua Pruitt, who nearly came face-to-face with Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer during the insurrection, was sentenced on Monday to four years and seven months in prison for his actions that day.

“You were at the forefront of that mob,” Judge Timothy Kelly said before handing down his sentence, adding that Pruitt and the mob’s actions “snapped our previously unbroken tradition of the peaceful transition of power.”

Biden isn’t the only leading political figure warning of extremism in the GOP. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, who is sometimes mentioned as a possible anti-Trump long-shot GOP presidential candidate in 2024, said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday that there was no question there were signs of authoritarianism in his party’s ranks. But he also raised concerns about the tone of the Biden’s rhetoric.

“If Republicans are calling Democrats socialists and communists and we have the President of the United States calling Republicans fascist, I don’t think it adds to the overall discussion,” Hogan said.

“We ought to just talk about the differences we have on the issues and focus on the problems that most people in America want us to focus on,” said Hogan, who’s term-limited this year and whose pick to replace him lost a GOP primary to a Trump-backed election denier.

Given America’s recent history of political violence and the threat of more, Hogan seems to be expressing a forlorn hope.