During the first months and years of the Trump administration when many were raising concerns about the increased polarization in American politics, others responded that things were worse and more violent during the late 1960s and early 1970s. This was not so much the product of rigorous political analysis, but of a kind of a reverse boomer nostalgia. It was the political equivalent of being told “hey man, you should’ve been at Woodstock.” The larger reality is that America has always been a very violent country, but Trump’s America has been even more extreme. Trump inherited some of this violence, such as mass incarceration and a culture that tolerates police brutality, but he immediately exacerbated it through, for example, his policies at the border, and his angry and violent rhetoric.
In the last few weeks, political violence in the US has evolved to a new level, one not seen in many decades. In Kenosha, Wisconsin violence erupted following yet another police shooting of an African American man. In this case, Jacob Blake was shot seven times in the back. It looks like he will survive, but may never be able to walk again. Naturally, the African American community in Kenosha began demonstrating. Unfortunately, some of the demonstrators engaged in looting and other violent acts. This led a 17 year old boy named Kyle Rittenhouse, a self-styled vigilante of sorts, to go to Kenosha from his home in the neighboring state of Illinois with an AR-15 and shoot three demonstrators, killing two. Rittenhouse has been arrested and charged with homicide. However, his actions have been lauded and rationalized by, among others, Donald Trump. Perhaps, the most appalling part of Rittenhouse’s saga is that he was driven to Kenosha by his mother.
In the last few weeks, political violence in the US has evolved to a new level, one not seen in many decades
The events in Portland, Oregon a few days later were even stranger. Portland is a city that has had more or less constant demonstrations for months and where federal troops associated with the Department of Homeland Security had abused and kidnapped protestors earlier in the summer. It was initially reported that a pro-Trump demonstrator was shot and killed by a left-wing activist. Those are some of the basic facts of what happened, but it is also relevant that the victim, a far-right activist named Aaron J. Danielson, was part of a convoy of Trump supporting activists who drove through the demonstrations waving Trump flags, firing paintball guns at protestors from the pickup trucks and verbally abusing protestors. Naturally fights broke out. Tragically, this led one of the protestors, a left-wing activist named Michael Reinohl, to shoot and kill Danielson.
There are some obvious differences between these two events, but there are some key similarities as well. In both cases right wing activists confronted protestors in a threatening manner. In Kenosha this led to the death of two people who were protesting police brutality, while in Portland it was a right-wing activist who died. In both cases, people on the right were spurred on by fear mongering by the president and his supporters to pro-actively confront protestors. In both cases had right wing activists who were not protesting, but were looking for a fight, simply stayed home, three fewer people would have been killed.
Rittenhouse’s search for some twisted form of heroism and vigilante justice should never be legal or permissible in a free or democratic society. The Portland events are a little more complex. Counterdemonstrations, are, and should be, protected by the First Amendment, but when those actions are linked to provocations, they contribute to violence. Had the pro-Trump demonstrators been on foot, waved banners and chanted slogans, rather than threaten protestors and fire paintball guns into crowds of demonstrators, it is much less likely that anybody would have been shot and killed.
Perhaps the most troubling thing about this violent turn is that it is likely only the beginning of a violent period in America
Perhaps the most troubling thing about this violent turn is that it is likely only the beginning of a violent period in America. The demonstrations that roiled may American cities since the killing of George Floyd have barely subsided and will likely become much bigger during and after a disputed election. The election will provide more opportunities for violence, particularly if this continues to be encouraged by the president. It is not at all hard to imagine other pro-Trump vigilantes violently harassing voters at polling places or at drop off points for ballots in the days leading up to the election. Moreover, Trump will, in one form or another, almost certainly claim victory in November even if he loses. That will lead to much bigger demonstrations on the left than what we have seen in recent months. Based on events of recent days, and from earlier this year, there is a real possibility of right wing activists violently disrupting those demonstrations. If that happens, the stakes will be even higher and the violence on both sides more difficult to contain.
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