Back in July, I was emailing with Erica Chenoweth — a professor at Harvard and an expert on protest and political violence around the world — about her take on Trump’s response to the protests for racial justice. One thing she warned about was the emergence of “pro-state/far-right militias who engage in vigilante violence and terrorism, sometimes with coordination or collusion with the state.”
This has happened in other times and places — think the Ku Klux Klan’s activities during Reconstruction, or neofascist militias in Italy in the mid-late 20th century. According to Chenoweth, such alliances between political parties and far-right militants sometimes work through escalation. Street fighting tends to increase “the desire for a law-and-order candidate” among certain segments population — and right-wing political factions reap the benefit.
In the wake of the shooting deaths of two people in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and murder charges against a Trump-supporting, self-described militia member, Chenoweth’s warning is chilling — all the more so because of the president’s reaction.
Trump has repeatedly refused to condemn the 17-year-old militia member’s behavior, giving a partial and one-sided rendering of the violence that cast it as justifiable self-defense in a Monday night press conference. “He fell, and then they very violently attacked him,” the president said. “He probably would have been killed.”
Over the weekend, a convoy of Trump supporters in Portland opened fire on counter-protesters with paintball guns and pepper spray. On Saturday, the president tweeted a video of their behavior with a caption that all-but-openly cheered them on. At the Monday press conference, the president on his defense of this violence — noting that a pro-Trump demonstrator was killed in Portland and framing paintballs, by contrast, as a form of peaceful protest.
“Paint is a defensive mechanism; paint is not bullets,” he said. “These people, they protested peacefully.”
And Tuesday, Trump is visiting Kenosha in person. We know Trump well enough to know that the odds that he keeps to a responsible message border on nil. It seems that stoking conflict and raising the salience of street violence has become a core part of his reelection strategy. According to experts, the risks of violence with Trump’s rhetoric, as he tightens the connection between far-right street thugs and the official Republican Party, could get worse in the coming weeks.
“His audience is tens of millions of people. Only a tiny percentage need to act to severely disrupt this country’s politics,” says J.M. Berger, an expert on violent extremism at the VOX-Pol research network (no relation to Vox.com).
“We don’t seem to have any institutional actors who are willing or able to put the brakes on his rhetoric, so it’s hard to imagine that this won’t get much, much worse by Election Day.”
Donald Trump has a very long history of inciting violence. “If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them, would you? Seriously, OK? Just knock the hell … I promise you I will pay for the legal fees,” he told his supporters at a 2016 rally.
But we’re going through an especially tense period in American politics, with a high-stakes election in two months and bouts of street violence in several cities. In such an atmosphere, Trump’s habit of engaging in violent rhetoric goes well beyond playing with fire.
Why we should take the risk of Trump’s rhetoric seriously
Judging by his tweets and the programming during the last week’s Republican National Convention, the president appears to genuinely believe that the chaos unfolding on American streets is good for him politically. The more violence there is, the more he can fearmonger about “Democrat-run cities” and “Joe Biden’s America” — distracting from America’s botched response to the Covid-19 virus.
“He believes this is his way out, given that economic recovery is slow and Covid-19 is never-ending,” says Cas Mudde, a professor at the University of Georgia who studies far-right politics. “Go to the old hit: racially infused authoritarianism.”
Remarkably, Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway more or less admitted that this is the logic at work. “The more chaos and anarchy and vandalism and violence reigns, the better it is for the very clear choice on who’s best on public safety and law and order,” she said during a Fox News appearance last week.
The rhetoric from leaders seems to really matter. An experiment conducted last September by two political scientists, Lilliana Mason and Nathan Kalmoe, asked Democratic and Republican partisans about their views on political violence. Some were shown quotes from a party leader (Trump or Biden) condemning such violence before being asked the questions; others were not.
The results were striking. When party leaders condemn violence against their opponents, partisans become more likely to oppose it as well. Absent that, strong partisans were considerably more likely than average Americans to condone it. And this finding likely understates the risk of non-condemnation.
“Our survey was among ‘regular’ Americans — I doubt we had any militia members in that sample,” Mason told me.
Biden seems to understand the risks here. In his speech on Monday, he forcefully condemned the violence that has erupted amid largely peaceful Black Lives Matter protests in places like Kenosha. “Rioting is not protesting. Looting is not protesting. Setting fires is not protesting. It’s lawlessness — plain and simple,” he said.
But there’s an asymmetry here. Early data on arrests during this summer’s protests suggests that the looters and vandals aren’t political activists, as the right suggests, but tend to be people with criminal records exploiting the situation. Even those avowedly left-wing groups that do engage in street violence, like antifa, are not supporters of the Democratic Party — in fact, they tend to be anarchists and far-leftists who disdain the liberal establishment.
By contrast, many of the far-right militant groups taking to the streets, including the one that the militia member charged with murder belonged to, tend to either support Trump openly or share some of his ideas. They don’t exactly act on Trump’s orders: the president isn’t that overt, and these groups don’t report to him in such a direct way.
Instead, you have loose coalitions of right-leaning armed groups — like the Oathkeepers — who take Trump’s decision to play footsie with violence as a permission structure to keep doing what they’re doing, or even to escalate. Berger, the extremism scholar, calls this “generalized incitement” — and worries that it has significant potential to make things worse.
“It’s not necessarily a situation where he has a very cohesive cadre of followers who will be violent in a strategic way, but his words land in a variety of communities that are primed for violence,” Berger says. “Some who act may not necessarily be supporters of Trump per se, but may be more inclined to act in an atmosphere of chaos. Some of them will be supporters, though, and that could be very problematic depending on the numbers.”
I’ve heard this kind of concern from experts before, when I’ve done investigations into violent internet subcultures like incels and neo-Nazi accelerationists. In these communities, message boards and chatrooms lionize mass killers — often walking right up to the line of actually calling for people to imitate them without crossing the line into outright criminal incitement to violence.
Most of these people are just keyboard warriors, aimlessly venting their bigotry online. But the concern among experts is that one isolated person will take what they read on these websites too seriously, to see a post about how “someone should do something” about feminists or Jews and decide that they are going to be that someone.
“It’s great that a lot of these guys aren’t violent,” Stephanie Carvin, a political scientist who studies terrorism at Canada’s Carleton University, told me during a conversation about incels. “But if they’re glorifying someone who was violent … a very small percentage of these individuals may feel more justified in acting.”
The audiences for these sites are necessarily limited. But President Trump has the world’s biggest bullhorn: his not-so-subtle support for political violence goes out to hundreds of millions rather than thousands. Even if a much smaller percentage of Trump’s audience has any inclination to turn to violence, the huge numbers at work here make the risk unacceptably high.
Put differently: The president is acting less like a political leader than like a shitposter-in-chief. And the consequences could go beyond what any of us are comfortable anticipating.
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