In the final week of August, the United States saw its biggest deterioration in societal norms and steps toward outright fascism since President Donald Trump came to office four years ago under a mantle of barely veiled authoritarianism. The troubling developments of the past week are almost too many to count.
On Tuesday, 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse allegedly crossed state lines with his automatic rifle and murdered two demonstrators at a protest of another horrific police shooting of a Black man. Local police did not arrest Rittenhouse or other armed white men—who went to Kenosha, Wisconsin, following the “call to arms” of a group calling itself the Kenosha Guard—for violating curfew, or even as suspects in the immediate aftermath of a murder. Instead, officers supplied them with water, thanked them for coming, and allowed Rittenhouse to walk away after allegedly murdering two men and seriously wounding a third. Kenosha’s chief of police responded by blaming the victims for having violated curfew while nearly exonerating Rittenhouse by describing the murder in the passive voice.
Meanwhile, the day prior, Ammon Bundy and dozens of other armed white and unmasked protesters pushed their way past police in Boise, Idaho, to pack the gallery overlooking the state’s House of Representatives. The gallery had been restricted for social distancing, but after the confrontation, which resulted in the shattering of a glass door, protesters were allowed to fill every seat.
It was also the week of the Republican National Convention, which culminated with a grand and illegal presidential acceptance speech with the backdrop of the taxpayer-funded White House decked out in Trump-Pence 2020 propaganda. The sight of the White House being used directly as a political prop in such a way has never happened in American history and is more reminiscent of the actions of certain European leaders of the 1930s who turned themselves into embodiments of the state.
This was just one of many such sins of this convention. On Wednesday, Mike Pence implied that Officer David Underwood was the victim of racial justice protesters, when in fact his murder in May was allegedly at the hands of a white nationalist soldier hoping to ignite a race war. The tactic of falsely blaming your political opponents for your own supporters’ acts of horrific violence is also not new.
It’s worth examining the direct connection between the violence we witnessed in the past week and the political performances of the Republican National Convention. The alleged Kenosha shooter, it’s important to note, had posted images from a front-row seat at a Trump rally earlier this year. Meanwhile, two of the stars of the RNC were a Missouri couple also famous solely for waving guns at Black Lives Matter protesters. This represents a growing and open policy by the president and his party to encourage violent supporters and their racist causes.
In April, for example, Trump tweeted a vague call to “liberate Michigan,” among other states, from restrictions meant to protect against the spread of COVID-19. His followers responded. White, armed militias—some carrying neo-Nazi and Confederate paraphernalia—soon swarmed the capital, threatening state lawmakers. Many brought automatic weapons into the legislative chamber itself. One Black legislator—likely noticing the Confederate and Nazi signage, as well as a lynching rope—brought armed escorts for security. Others wore bulletproof vests.
In response, Trump called these armed vigilantes “very good people,” the same language he famously used to describe white supremacist tiki torch–wielding marchers in Charlottesville, Virginia, three years ago, and urged the governor to give in to their demands. In short, he offered open support for violent white rebellion.
A week later, the Trump campaign emailed supporters a slew of appeals for money to capitalize on the publicity, inviting supporters to join his private “army.” One email calling out “FOR PATRIOTS ONLY” told supporters, “You’d make an excellent addition to the Trump Army.” Donors were offered a limited-edition “Keep America Great Hat” in camouflage design. “The President wants YOU and every other member of our exclusive Trump Army to have something to identify yourselves with, and to let everyone know that YOU are the President’s first line of defense when it comes to fighting off the Liberal MOB.” The solicitation was reminiscent of Trump’s violent threat last year that his supporters in the military, law enforcement, and biker gangs might have to get “tough” on his political opponents in a way that would prove to be “very bad, very bad.” Indeed, earlier this summer when street protests against the murder of George Floyd were reaching their peak, Trump promised to use state violence against demonstrators, tweeting “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” He soon followed by sending a federalized secret police force to Portland, Oregon, against the wishes of the city and state.
With these efforts, the president is enabling and encouraging the formation of armed forces, outside the control of the state, with his uniforms and loyalty only to him. He’s further pushing loyal state forces to either acquiesce to the vigilante demands or outright support them. Amenable law enforcement—from Kenosha to Portland—have proven eager to abide.
Amid the flurry of steps toward authoritarianism, confidence that institutional stability and cultural norms will protect us from the fate of other states that fell to fascistic movements has taken a profound hit. With Trump’s continued attempts to preemptively delegitimize—or even outright sabotage—the upcoming election, democratic stability is at risk.
As senior Holocaust historian Christopher Browning put it in 2018:
If people do not accept the ground rules by which democracy operates and winning at all costs and incivility become the norm, then things fall apart. … We see that falling apart with political polarization now. And that was true in the 1930s with the rise of authoritarianism and fascism in Europe and elsewhere.
Browning certainly had Weimar Germany in mind. The state suffered from rampant violence wrought by vigilante militias that operated almost without restraint. It lacked the ability or will to suppress the violent threat, particularly against right-wing nonstate paramilitary units. The ascendancy of the Nazis—put into power (like all fascists) by traditional conservatives hoping to suppress social democratic demands by caving to right-wing radicals—was the result.
Since 2015, scholars have published widely on our current political moment and how it does, and does not, fit into the accepted typologies of fascist movements. The parallels are many. They include, for example, Trump’s glorification of a mythical past while blaming all problems on a demonized scapegoat, his constant mantra of “fake news” (what Nazis called the “lying press”) to neutralize the free press, and his cult of leadership and demonizing of opponents as traitorous “enemies of the people.” Critically, it includes also his view of the world as a pseudo-Darwinian struggle of “winners” and “losers” and his valuation of violence as a positive good.
While no scholar dismisses these parallels altogether, some have offered consolation, noting significant differences between our current moment and Weimar Germany. Browning, for instance, pointed out that Trump lacks an agenda to wage war in order to remake the world in his ideological vision, although he is certainly remaking the world order in other ways. His supreme goals seem to be self-enrichment, attention, and the pleasure of inflicting suffering on personal enemies.
Above all, historians have taken solace—until recently—in our strong economy, global stability, and the popular faith in our government grounded in two centuries of semidemocratic tradition.
Those foundations are under terrible stress.
In the midst of this pandemic—and the economic crisis it engendered—we are crossing new thresholds. The mob returned this summer for more armed rallies in Michigan. Dozens of threats against Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer were posted on social media. “We haven’t had any bloodshed yet, but the populous is counting to three, and yesterday was day two,” read the post in a 385,000-member Facebook group called Michiganders Against Excessive Quarantine. “Next comes the watering the tree of liberty with the blood of tyrant.”
Others promised to attend anti-government protests “armed to the death” and without face masks, threatening to attack any police officers who dared confront them. As Michelle Norris wrote in the Washington Post, “The protests are purportedly about reopening America. A parallel goal is realignment—using the Second Amendment to conduct regular and routine shows of force to intimidate elected officials into enacting a political agenda.” In Ohio, armed protesters with anti-Semitic signage stalked the home of the head of the health department, Dr. Amy Acton. Militias are using all of these events, as well as the anxiety underlying the pandemic, as recruiting tools. Their welcome support by local police in Kenosha—while the president and his party spent the week portraying Black Lives Matter protesters as violent thugs—surely did wonders for the movement.
No two situations are ever identical, but history matters. Trump is inflaming and urging a large minority of the country to believe that the government constitutes a “deep state” conspiracy against him—and therefore them. He is feeding friendly media outlets like Rush Limbaugh, Alex Jones, and Rick Wiles racist and conspiracist fuel. He is convincing a large minority that the election is rigged against them. He is purging officials who might offer government oversight and replacing the Justice Department and judiciary with radical loyalists. He is encouraging armed vigilantes to consider themselves members of a special “Trump Army” to defeat the threat of the enemy at home. Most critically, he is suppressing our ability to vote through the mail at a time of pandemic. As all this takes place, the assumption that a free election and transfer of power will happen peacefully grows dubious.
A president pushing fascist rhetoric with autocratic tendencies is running America, and our democratic safeguards are greatly weakened. Paramilitary violence by an enraged white minority—organized and stoked by the president, to whom they are loyal, and local police who tolerate or empower them—is becoming a new norm.
This comes not only from the top. For example, here’s how the Kenosha County sheriff spoke in 2018 about Black shoplifters in his district: “Let’s put them in jail. Let’s stop them from going out and getting 10 other women pregnant and having small children. Let’s put them away. We have to get to the point where we will no longer put up with the garbage people that fill our communities. They are a cancer to our society.”
Meanwhile, a new report by Michael German, a former FBI special agent, concludes that U.S. law enforcement officials have been tied to racist militant activities in more than a dozen states since 2000, with hundreds of police officers caught posting racist and bigoted social media content. Nationwide, law enforcement seem to tolerate a level of white violence—individually and from a mob—that one can scarcely imagine people of color taking part in without consequence. Many sheriffs and other law enforcement leaders have publicly supported these militias and announced their refusal to obey state orders to enforce stay-at-home mandates. In one town, Portsmouth, Virginia, law enforcement is arresting local Black political officeholders on charges of criticizing the police. If Trump loses and refuses to acknowledge defeat in the coming election, will America’s law enforcement remain loyal to the state and its Constitution or to Trump?
No matter what happens on Nov. 3, we should be ready for white violence. It is the new normal, stoked and validated by the highest office in the land.