The recent murders in Portland, Oregon, of two men whose throats were slashed when they tried to stop Islamophobic and racist harassment on a light rail train were not just random acts of violence. It is true that the alleged killer, Jeremy Christian, appears to be a troubled person. And it’s true that the murders were outcroppings of the deeper violence of Islamophobia and white supremacy that pervades US society. But they were more than that. They were part of an ongoing spate of murders and shootings that are being directly inspired by the “scripted violence” of the right. When right-wing leaders and media demonize marginalized groups and broadcast calls about a supposed looming “white genocide,” some of the rank-and-file will take these words literally — and try to solve the problem with murder.
The Portland double-murder is only the latest in a series of politically motivated racist killings. In February 2017, Srinivas Kuchibhotla, an Indian man working in the US, was shot to death in a Kansas bar. His alleged murderer shouted “Go back to your country!” In March, a Black man, Timothy Caughman, was stabbed to death by a white man who had traveled to New York to allegedly kill all the Black men he could find. In Baltimore in May, a white man who was part of a Facebook group called “Alt Reich: Nation” allegedly stabbed a Black man, Richard Collins III, to death at a bus stop near the University of Maryland. And these incidents don’t include the numerous other non-fatal shootings and attacks that have occurred.
Violence has made its way into the highest levels of US domestic politics in a way that hasn’t been seen in decades. Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign rallies raised the temperature: Amid fights at many of them, Trump himself egged the violence on, at one point saying, “So if you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of ’em, would you? Seriously. Okay? Just knock the hell — I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees. I promise. I promise.”
But even beyond these explicit appeals, political rhetoric based on demonization and scapegoating often leads to violence against the groups targeted, whether they are transgender folks, Jews, Muslims, immigrants or people of color. Chip Berlet, a long-time scholar of right-wing populist movements, lays out the details of how this dynamic works in his essay “Heroes Know Which Villains to Kill: How Coded Rhetoric Incites Scripted Violence,” writing, “The leaders of organized political or social movements sometimes tell their followers that a specific group of ‘Others’ is plotting to destroy civilized society.”
The leaders don’t need to exhort their followers directly to violence. In fact, in the last couple decades, most white supremacist and Islamophobic leaders have learned they can conduct a campaign of vilification, scapegoating and demonization without ever directly calling for violence. As Berlet says, “history tells us that if this message is repeated vividly enough, loudly enough, often enough, and long enough — it is only a matter of time before the bodies from the name scapegoated groups start to turn up.” The followers will hear these dramatic claims of impending disaster, and take it upon themselves to be “heroes” — by killing members of the demonized group, and thereby helping to “save” society.
More progressives — particularly those who are not part of targeted groups — should spend some time on radical-right websites, like the Oath Keepers, Infowars, and Daily Stormer, to get a sense of how heated the rhetoric is about the impending “genocide” of white people, the trope that Muslims are secret terrorists, and how communists are about to overthrow the US government.
Muslims are clearly one of the main targets of this radical-right rhetoric, as are transgender people (27 of whom were murdered last year, a record high). Now, a slew of death threats is also being directed at antifascist (or antifa for short) activists. At his court hearing on May 30, 2017, the alleged Portland murderer, Jeremy Christian, yelled in court, “Death to antifa!”
Right-wing activists, sensing how the Portland murders will create blowback against their movement, have gone into spin mode. They are trying to paint Jeremy Christian as a leftist, despite the fact that at the end of April he appeared at a so-called “Free Speech” demonstration in Portland with a baseball bat, threatening to kill left-wing activists, while sieg heiling and yelling “Hail Vinland.” Many are also claiming he is simply a mentally ill individual — just as the radical-right media did with Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who killed nine worshippers in a Black church in 2015. If mental illness were the cause of these political murders, such murders would be committed by people from all over the political spectrum. Instead, they are consistently committed by those on the radical right. (Moreover, such rhetoric stigmatizes mental health problems, even though people with mental illness are much more likely to be victims than perpetrators of acts of violence.)
Members of the radical right, from those in the Patriot movement to the avowed white supremacists, are an incredibly violent bunch. The Extremist Crime Database, funded by the federal government, tallied 272 fatalities committed by the “far right” between 1990 and 2017 — a number that jumps to 440 when the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing is included. These murders are the result of a political culture of violence that the radical right cultivates. It does not just include the “scripted violence” that demonizes historically oppressed groups but also includes the formation of paramilitary units and the open justification, and praise of, political violence. Radical right activists kill people of color and other minority groups — but also their own family members, as well as government officials and police. They even settle their internecine disputes with murder.
With Trump and his appointees openly circulating demonizing narratives, the genie is out of the American bottle. US presidents have limited political power, but they have an incredible ability to set the mood of the country. And the mood is ugly. We can expect more murders from hate-steeped men like Jeremy Christian.