It's not hyperbole to say that President Trump is encouraging right-wing domestic terrorism.
After a white supremacist killed one and injured nearly two dozen others in a 2017 terrorist attack against protesters in Charlottesville, Trump initially condemned the violence, saying the hate groups present were "repugnant." The next day, he reversed course, saying there were "very fine people on both sides," even though one side almost entirely consisted of the same hate groups he maligned the day prior who chanted slogans like "Jews will not replace us." Trump's remarks were celebrated by neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin.
But in 2020, there's apparently no longer any need for Trump to pretend to dislike domestic terrorism carried out against his political enemies. In fact, he's signaling to his most rabid followers that he wants more of it. Despite getting a straight-down-the-middle, home-plate pitch from a journalist to speak out against 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse's alleged murder of two protesters and alleged injuring of a third in Kenosha last week, Trump insisted Rittenhouse—whose contingent in Kenosha included a man who routinely posted neo-Nazi propaganda on social media—was acting in self-defense.
REPORTER: "Do you condemn the actions of vigilantes like Kyle Rittenhouse?"
TRUMP: "We're looking at all of it. It was an interesting situation. We saw the same thing and he was trying to get away from them… And he fell, and then they very violently attacked him."
Legally, it would be difficult for Rittenhouse to effectively claim self-defense, given that his mother drove him across state lines with an assault rifle he isn't old enough to legally carry to shoot people (instead of staying home and doing what normal 17-year-olds do, like TikTok or homework). But the defense of Rittenhouse isn't even the worst part. Trump went further to suggest all non-Republican political ideology was inherently dangerous to society.
"Law-abiding suburbanites who get their information from Facebook and local TV news will be the voters who decide whether or not a man who encourages white supremacist domestic terrorists to kill Americans in the streets gets to be the most powerful person in the world for another four years. America simply won't recover after another four years of Trump."
"We have to stop this horrible left-wing ideology that seems to be permeating our country," Trump said at the end of his press conference. "I was with the Governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, and he was explaining they wouldn't put up with it for a minute."
Trump very likely knows by now that his base is both eager and more than capable of committing acts of political violence. Kyle Rittenhouse was in the front row of a Trump rally as recently as January. Trump supporter Cesar Sayoc mailed pipe bombs to news outlets and prominent Democrats that Trump attacked. The man who killed 20 people at an El Paso Walmart in 2019 wrote a manifesto that borrowed heavily from Trump's remarks about undocumented immigrants.
Trump's suggestion that "horrible" left-wing ideology must be stopped could very well be interpreted by the Rittenhouses and Sayocs of America that they need to take up arms against the political left, and that if they do so, they can claim self-defense.
This was likely the impetus behind herds of Trump supporters swarming on Portland, Oregon, driving into crowds of protesters, spraying pepper spray at protesters through open windows, and shooting paintball guns at them. Ironically, it's the same thing that Trump warned would happen in 2018, when he suggested a caravan of undocumented immigrants was going to invade cities and attack citizens. Except the caravans are his most loyal supporters.
Since early June, Portland State University professor Alexander Reid Ross has been documenting the campaign of unprecedented violence that far-right militias and homegrown terrorists have been waging against largely peaceful protesters. Ross' interactive map of either outright violence against or menacing of protesters shows hundreds of incidents in hundreds of counties in virtually every state in the country.
As Ross told me in an interview, the summer of right-wing terrorism that's been sweeping the U.S. is not unlike ISIS' targeted terror attacks in Europe over the past several years.
"Image boards like 8kun, 8chan, when they see this kind of thing, there's no other word for it than jubilation. And that kind of celebration of extreme violence and murder, with a political end, I don't know how else you would define that," Ross told me. "What you usually find when you study terrorism is that it's not necessarily designed to carry out a direct objective other than the heightening of political tensions and oppositions. It's there to polarize... That's what leads me to believe that the objective is in fact terrorism."
President Trump's re-election depends on fence-sitting Americans in swing states excusing fascist-inspired violence in order to feel safe. And as Robert Paxton wrote in "Anatomy of Fascism," that's a strategy straight out of the fascist playbook.
Fascist violence was neither random nor indiscriminate. It carried a well-calculated set of coded messages: That communist violence was rising, that the democratic state was responding to it ineptly, and that only the fascists were tough enough to save the nation from antinational terrorists. An essential step in the fascist march to acceptance and power was to persuade law-and-order conservatives and members of the middle class to tolerate fascist violence as a harsh necessity in the face of Left provocation.
While this may seem painfully on-the-nose for some people reading this, others will certainly be duped. Columnist Andrew Sullivan—a product of elitist institutions like Harvard University and New York magazine—essentially admitted he preferred fascism if it meant overly militant protests would be squashed.
"If one party supports everything I believe in but doesn't believe in maintaining law and order all the time and everywhere, I'll back a party that does. In that sense, I'm a one-issue voter, because without order, there is no room for any other issue," Sullivan wrote. "Disorder always and everywhere begets more disorder; the minute the authorities appear to permit such violence, it is destined to grow. And if liberals do not defend order, fascists will."
Given the threat of another four years of fascist terror, it brings me no pleasure to say Joe Biden will need every swing state vote he can get—even despite his latest $45 million ad buy condemning rioting and looting. Strategically it makes sense; Biden knows the people protesting police brutality will never vote for Trump. What he needs are votes in swing states like Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Wisconsin from people who think like Andrew Sullivan does. It's the reason he picked a lifelong cop to be his running mate, rather than someone more progressive like Elizabeth Warren or Karen Bass.
As disappointing as it is to admit, the God-fearing, police-respecting Andrew Sullivans of swing-state America are far more numerous than the people marching in the streets against police terror. They will be the ones who decide whether or not a fascist whose negligence during a global pandemic has led to tens of thousands of preventable deaths will remain in charge of the federal government for another half-decade. Law-abiding suburbanites who get their information from Facebook and local TV news will be the voters who decide whether or not a man who encourages white supremacist domestic terrorists to kill Americans in the streets gets to be the most powerful person in the world for another four years. America simply won't recover after another four years of Trump.
When having to choose whether or not we want to fight an authoritarian fascist regime or a spineless neoliberal administration, the answer is clear.