Trump believes he can link the chaos to the unlikely figure of Joe Biden, a stalwart of the Washington establishment and a political centrist. “The violence has escalated as Trump has seized on the social justice protests as a campaign wedge, attempting to tie Biden to ‘radical’ elements on the left,” my colleagues reported. “Eager to shift the political debate from the rising deaths and economic toll of the pandemic, Trump has relentlessly attacked Democratic mayors and governors for failing to quell protests, and he dispatched federal law enforcement authorities into cities to help arrest demonstrators.”
But it’s the intervention of self-appointed vigilantes into the fray — goaded in some instances by Trump — that has intensified the crisis. In Kenosha, a teenage far-right gunman who drove to the city from out-of-state is suspected of killing two protesters. Over the weekend, a convoy of armed Trump supporters swept into the West Coast city of Portland, Ore., and engaged in clashes with left-wing protesters. One man, an apparent right-wing demonstrator, was shot and died of his injuries. The suspected shooter has called himself a member of “antifa” on social media.
“Both incidents have drawn complaints that local authorities abetted the violence by tolerating the presence of these self-appointed enforcers with no uniforms, varied training and limited accountability,” reported my colleagues Joshua Partlow and Isaac Stanley-Becker. “The stated motives of these vigilante actors, who are virtually indistinguishable from one another once massed on the streets, range from protecting storefronts and free speech to furthering white supremacy and fomenting civil war.”
The United States has a long, dark history of vigilante violence against minority communities and anti-government protesters, at times enabled by police complicity. In the country’s polarized climate under Trump, some on the far-right are already celebrating this new generation of far-right volunteers as heroes. “Even if the criminal legal system catches up with the militia members and vigilantes, they can expect an outpouring of right wing approval, with [Fox News anchor] Tucker Carlson mounting their defense, and with the six-figure online fundraising hauls that come with all of it,” wrote Melissa Gira Grant of the New Republic.
Former FBI officials and other researchers warn of the growing white supremacist radicalization of officers in some police departments and sheriffs offices. While Trump raged this summer against the threat posed by anti-fascist protesters, scrutiny has also fallen on the far-right “boogaloo bois” movement, an online-driven mobilization of armed extremists who have appeared at Trump rallies that’s already linked to the killing of a police officer and plots to bomb peaceful protests.
“If President Trump loses the election, some extremists may use violence because they believe—however incorrectly—that there was fraud or that the election of Democratic candidate Joe Biden will undermine their extremist objectives,” warned a report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank, earlier this summer.
“The numbers are overwhelming: Most of the violence is coming from the extreme right wing,” Clint Watts, a former FBI agent who studies extremist political activity for the Foreign Policy Research Institute, told my colleagues.
During the course of his tumultuous presidency, Trump’s doom-mongering nativism has echoed in the manifestoes and messaging of a number of far-right shooters with blood on their hands from a Pennsylvania synagogue to a mosque in New Zealand. Far-right, anti-government conspiracy theories like the QAnon movement that have generated under his watch — and which he seems unable to disavow — have crossed the Atlantic and are now being embraced by counterparts in Europe.
On Saturday, a group of far-right extremists who had joined a broader march in Berlin against government-imposed restrictions during the pandemic attempted to storm the German parliament, or Reichstag. “The violent riots on Saturday again made clear that right-wing extremism has deep roots in our society,” German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said. “It is a serious danger and it is an important and ongoing task to uncover networks in the early stages in order to effectively combat it.”
But, at least in Germany, such agitators remain a fringe threat. In the United States, they are indulged by the most powerful man in the land. “Trump is explicitly campaigning on law and order without the rule of law, in all its terrible implications,” noted Post columnist Greg Sargent, who pointed to the speciousness of a president trailing myriad cases of alleged criminality now cloaking himself in the mantle of the law. “That makes Trump not the law-and-order candidate, but rather the candidate of arbitrary violence, lawless abuses of power and civil breakdown.”
That idea of civic breakdown in America looks terrifyingly real. “In the past, groups that have felt disenfranchised have turned to protest, a peaceful attempt to persuade well-meaning elites or beneficent institutions to expand democracy,” wrote Franklin Foer in the Atlantic. “But in the Trumpian worldview, those elites and institutions are conspiring against him. By delegitimizing the American political system, he has given his followers the impression that they have no choice but to assert themselves through nonpolitical means.”
“I don’t think a lot of Americans understand how fragile democracy is,” Raul Torrez, a Democratic district attorney in New Mexico who is seeking to restrict the actions of a far-right militia there, told my colleagues. “One of the early signs of a troubled democracy is when people decide that they’re no longer going to address their political differences at the ballot box — or in elected legislatures or in Congress — but they’re going to do it on the street, and they’re going to do it with guns.”