Armed militias have been the classic tool of authoritarian regimes in for the past century, from Hitler’s brown shirts to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.
Only last month, I heard the Iraqi prime minister describe his struggle to curb Iranian-backed militias in his country that have killed peaceful protesters. In Belarus and Moscow, autocrats are using personal security forces to attack pro-democracy activists. In Hong Kong, once a rule of law bastion, police sent or trained by Beijing are helping the mainland crush protesters.
Now President Donald Trump has openly joined the pro-militia crowd.
Claiming to be the law-and-order president, Trump is stoking racial tensions rather than seeking to calm them. He is encouraging armed supporters who show up in racially troubled towns and cities with their rifles at the ready.
He cheered on a pro-Trump caravan of trucks that drove into downtown Portland, Ore., Saturday as “GREAT PATRIOTS,” even though video showed them hurling paintballs and pepper spray and driving into protesters, leaving one dead from an unsolved shooting.
And on the eve of a visit to Kenosha, Wis., he defended Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old rifle-toting pro-Trumper accused of killing two people; they were protesting the police pumping of seven bullets into the back of Jacob Blake, an unarmed Black man.
Details of the Rittenhouse shooting remain unclear, but don’t impact the essential point: Armed vigilantes like this young man are being encouraged to show up and take on demonstrators. Down that road lies civil war.
Indeed, civil war was on the GOP agenda at their recent convention. Trump inspired vigilantism by billing all protesters as “left-wing mobs” and “anarchists, agitators, and criminals who threaten our citizens.” All demonstrations are violent and organized by Democrats, in Trump’s fantasy version, while Joe Biden is controlled by “dark forces.”
The convention even used fake video — of supposed riots in American cities — that was actually stock footage of a protest in Spain.
No surprise, this follows on Trump’s praise for torch-wielding neo-Nazi supporters in Charlottesville, Va., and vast overstatement of the threat from a loose anti-fascist coalition known as antifa.
The president has praised armed vigilantes who have invaded statehouses and shown up in small cities and towns such as Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, after fake social media rumors that antifa was invading. What perfect fodder for Russian hackers to spur violence in our country!
And Trump has shown no appetite for conciliation with protesters, even when given the perfect opportunity. Take, for example, Kenosha, where the president chose not to visit the Blake family, although the victim’s mom has pleaded for nonviolence on all sides, including from protesters.
Instead, Trump chose to defend the shooting of Blake, saying the police had “choked,” like somebody missing a golf putt.
With reconciliation off the table, we must ask how Trump intends to use militias going forward.
In other words, Trump is a Mussolini-in-waiting, or simply an amoral leader willing to use any tactic to get votes? And even if “only” the latter, how will it undermine the country?
Jason Stanley, author of How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them, warns against underestimating Trump’s intent just because this isn’t Europe — with its history of fascist regimes. “We’ve seen an increasing attempt by Trump to mobilize militias in classic fashion,” the Yale philosophy professor told me.
“He’s attempting a Mussolini. We’ve got militias roaming the street. He’s certainly captured one of the political parties and turned it into a cult of the leader,” Stanley said. Even though the U.S. military is neutral, warns Stanley, the president “has made himself a spokesman for the police, has a large number of ICE agents behind him.”
Harvard’s Daniel Ziblatt, author of How Democracies Die, believes Trump’s strategy is “not as coherent as it might seem. He’s improvising.
“What certainly is worrying is that he is activating certain elements of his wilder base to take law into their own hands. That can easily get out of control.”
Ziblatt adds that this encouragement of militias is “terribly destructive to democratic norms. A second term would be incredibly dangerous. If he can win an election for this, then the norms are gone.”
Of course, the prospect for militia interference during voting, or if Trump loses the election, is also extremely scary.
This is why it is so important for the Democratic Party to undercut Trump’s promotion of civil war by making clear that Trump is the main force fueling violence.
So Biden’s message this week to those who seek racial justice should be repeated over and over by the candidate: “Rioting is not protesting. Looting is not protesting. Setting fires is not protesting. It’s lawlessness, plain and simple. And those who do it should be prosecuted.”
Ditto for the words last month of Rep. Jim Clyburn (D., S.C.), who feared a minority of violent protesters could play into the president’s fake narrative: “I am very concerned about whether these are protesters or pretenders … who will jeopardize the success of this movement. [Do not] lose sight of the purpose of these protests. Keep your eyes on the prize.”