The jihad was launched the way these things always get started in the 21st century — on Facebook. The “Trump Cruise Rally” that would drive into the dark heart of strife-riven Portland, Ore., was announced as “conceal carry ONLY!” It began at the Clackamas Town Center — a suburban shopping center where, in 2012, a 22-year-old man with tactical clothing, a hockey mask, and a stolen AR-15 had shot at random shoppers, killing two.
In the hazy aftermath of a Republican convention that at times celebrated vigilantism as much as it deified President Donald Trump, a throng of 1,000 to 2,000 or more answered the call. “Today is about freedom and showing that antifa doesn’t have the full chokehold on Portland and that we’re taxpaying citizens and we don’t want s— tore up,” a protester named Joe Reminar told Oregon Public Broadcasting. Soon they were off, their giant Trump flags flying from the back of pickup trucks, looking every bit like the Taliban charging down a dusty Afghan road.
If the Trump caravan was looking for trouble, it wouldn’t take long to find it in an American city where peaceful protests for racial justice are often overshadowed by extremists of the far-right and far-left. Portland police — known for murky allegiances and inexplicable actions — somehow let the truck rally veer into the downtown protest zone, where clashes broke out. The caravan riders jumped out to beat up a citizen trying to film them. From the back of flag-draped trucks, they sprayed mace and fired paintball pellets, striking a New York Times reporter, while one driver accelerated toward pedestrians, miraculously missing them.
Inevitably, shots rang out.
With another anxious Sunday morning coming down across America, one man lay dead in Portland — as the nation reels from its worst outbreak of political violence since 1968. Gruesome photos show the victim was wearing a hat from Patriot Prayer, a violent right-wing extremist group. Whoever was responsible, any political murder is a contemptible act — and a needless downward spiral toward what is starting to resemble a civil war in the United States.
If, indeed, the victim is later identified as a Trump supporter, the name of a martyr has now been delivered to a president who refuses to condemn the right-wing murders that took place last week, the conservative media, college Republicans, and all the others now praising 17-year-old vigilante Kyle Rittenhouse as a hero, and a GOP that increasingly sees armed conflict in the streets of America as its only path to victory in the Nov. 3 election.
As the sun rose on Sunday, a clearly electrified President Trump was tweeting dozens of times, urging “LAW AND ORDER!” and making his threat to invoke the Insurrection Act of 1807 to send armed troops into Portland and other U.S. cities feel more likely. With the presidential election just 65 days away, the specter that Americans will be casting ballots in a time of domestic military intervention and increasing civil unrest seems more likely than ever.
The sad reality is that none of this is surprising. Trump’s outgoing longtime strategist, Kellyanne Conway, shouted the quiet part of Trump’s civil war strategy out loud last week when she proclaimed on national TV: “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.” Both Conway and Trump have been building on last week’s RNC that openly chose to celebrate vigilantism, with a high-profile primetime TV slot to the St. Louis couple that brandished firearms toward Black Lives Matter marchers, who urged viewers to defend the suburbs.
Since they spoke, that 17-year-old youth in Illinois answered a Facebook call for armed militia to battle an uprising in Kenosha, Wis. — where a white police officer had shot a Black man in the back seven times — and ended up killing two men and wounding a third. Yet, Kyle Rittenhouse became a warped kind of national hero for conservatives — more background music as the American Taliban gathered for a Clackamas carpool.
In fact, with not nearly enough of an outcry, right-wing violence — physical assaults and even killings of human beings, which proponents justified as a response to protests occasionally marred by property damage and looting, but mostly peaceful — has been steadily on the rise since Minneapolis police killed George Floyd on May 25.
Here in Pennsylvania, protesters marching from Milwaukee to Washington for Friday’s large civil rights rally were shot at, and one man was wounded. The Washington Post chronicled violent melees such as a Black Lives Matter and voter registration rally in mostly conservative Tyler, Texas, that was overwhelmed by punch-throwing right-wingers, as heavily armed men surrounded the town square.
It seems that Trump’s famous inaugural promise of an end to American carnage was, in fact, a scheme to foment it — especially for an embattled president who desperately wants to turn the national debate away from a coronavirus death toll that marches inexorably toward 200,000 well before Election Day, double-digit unemployment and rising despair, and a growing list of scandals and abuses of power that carry the stench of autocracy.
The president was given yet another chance, as he toured hurricane-ravished Louisiana on Saturday, to condemn Rittenhouse’s vigilantism, or to comment on the hard-to-justify police shooting of Kenosha’s Jacob Blake. Again, he did neither. He blamed his sudden reticence to speak out on the fact that “we’re looking into” Rittenhouse’s killing spree — laughable since the Trump administration never looks into anything unless it will benefit Trump politically or financially. Fully aware of the carnage that occurred in Portland, Trump on Sunday called the caravan “GREAT PATRIOTS!”
Like most decent Americans, I’m watching our new national nightmare unfold with mixed feelings that this time — in a much more diverse America than 1968, with a new silent majority that craves an end to violence and division — Trump’s approach won’t work, and with growing anxiety that somehow it will. Polls showing the president’s support holding and perhaps rising slightly in battleground states (where Joe Biden still holds small leads) prove that his base is rallying around the red-meat rhetoric. Trump won’t get the most votes in 2020 — he didn’t in 2016, either — but the chaos and confusion he needs to merely claim victory, regardless of the real outcome, and possibly abuse the power of the president to cling to the White House looks more likely today.
I want to be clear about two things. First, I pray that all violence will stop. Yes, that includes violence against property in the name of progressive causes, which is morally wrong, often hurts small-business owners from rising communities, and which — for the most part — is fueling both Trump’s authoritarianism and the yearning of extremists itching for an excuse to harm or kill human beings they disagree with. But we also need to stay focused on who is committing the greater crimes against humanity.
An analysis prepared before the latest Portland mayhem and published this weekend on HuffPost documented hundreds of episodes of right-wing extremists confronting Black Lives Matter protests this summer, resulting in 64 assaults, 38 times that cars were driven into a crowd, and nine times that shots were fired. Three people had been killed.
Which brings us to the more important point. No matter what happened on the ground in Portland, it’s indisputable that no American commander-in-chief — not Richard Nixon in the depths of Watergate, nor LBJ under siege from Vietnam protesters, nor Andrew Johnson or Warren G. Harding or any other bad POTUS — has cheered on violent, armed extremists to save his presidency and himself before Trump sullied the office that way.
American voters this fall will choose between a candidate in Biden who, whatever his flaws, has condemned all violence and promised at his convention to represent all Americans, even the ones who won’t vote for him, or one in Trump who presided over a neo-fascist (bleep)show in which he labeled anyone who opposes him as an enemy of the state.
It sounds like an easy choice, but the other interpretation of what’s happening today is that a candidate who’s promised decency yet is playing by the old rules is running against one who’s shown no shame about illegally marshaling the full power of the American presidency, including armed troops, or appealing to the basest and vilest instincts of his supporters, including a tacit endorsement of violence by his “Second Amendment people.”
Just a few short years ago, folks who wondered if America’s irreconcilable differences could somehow spark a second Civil War were ridiculed — for understandable reasons. What, Illinois is going to invade Indiana or something? No, our new civil war looks exactly like the American carnage that was unleashed on Portland last night, and with a pro-vigilante modern-day Jefferson Davis in the White House, the next two months could get much, much worse. The United States is once again a house divided against itself. Whether it stands depends on how much courage and innovation decent citizens can muster between now and the dog days of November.