“We’re gonna help you rebuild,” President Trump said to the former owners of Rode’s Camera Store. The 109-year-old shop was burned down in Kenosha, Wisconsin, during protests against the police shooting of Jacob Blake. The current owner, Tom Gram, declined to appear with Trump, and told local station TMJ4, “I think everything he does turns into a circus, and I just didn’t want to be involved in it.”
Trump used the charred ruins as a backdrop to bolster his flailing campaign anyway. Former Vice President Joe Biden leads him by 7 to 8 points in recent national polls. Panicked at losing the election, Trump doubled down on “law and order” rhetoric to burnish his image as the protector of suburban America. At a round table in Kenosha, Trump said the enemy was “violent mobs” that were driven by “reckless, far-left politicians (who) continue to push the destructive message that our nation and our law enforcement are oppressive or racist.”
It may be a hard sell. During the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Trump’s polls went into a freefall. As deaths from the virus ebbed, his ratings rose, but swing–state voters still give Biden a slight edge in being seen as competent enough to handle the crisis. In an effort to look like an American “Winston Churchill” and a “wartime president,” Trump sought to divert attention from COVID-19 by framing protesters against police brutality as the enemy.
Appeals to white grievance are Trump’s go-to move. The danger is that this desperate strategy has stoked the passions of right-wing militias who have turned to open violence against Black Lives Matter activists. The blood spilled in the streets can ignite into more intense conflict. Trump has already signaled he is willing to harness that violence to keep power if he loses on election night.
The Right-Wing Backlash in Kenosha
On August 23, in Kenosha, a white police officer named Rusten Sheskey shot Jacob Blake, an unarmed Black man, seven times in the back. His children watched from inside the car. Blake was paralyzed from the waist down and yet was shackled to the hospital bed by the police. The news traveled like a lit fuse through the city. Hundreds of people gathered to protest. The city announced a curfew. Police launched tear gas and rubber bullets. And then 17-year-old Trump supporter Kyle Rittenhouse strode into the streets with a gun and shot three protesters. Two were killed.
The contrast between the August 23 protests in Kenosha and the early- to mid-summer protests over the police murder of George Floyd was a right-wing backlash. After Floyd repeatedly said, “I can’t breathe,” and begged for his life under the knee of Officer Derek Chauvin, an immense international protest movement began. At its peak, nearly half a million activists in 550 places in the U.S. joined thousands in solidarity around the world in calling for an end to racism and police brutality. Many (if not at times a majority) of the protesters were white. Polls showed racism was widely seen as a dire problem and that Black Lives Matter activism had gained mass approval. And then the backlash began.
The right-wing media trained cameras on the subset of the protesters who were engaged in property destruction, magnifying them out of proportion in comparison to the mostly peaceful marches. Outlets began to use the language of crime to frame Black Lives Matter as a threat to suburban, white America.
Tucker Carlson led the charge. On his show, “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” he argued that Democrats want to “replace” the police (many of whom he said “voted for Donald Trump”) and “swap them out with new people who hate Donald Trump and hate the people who voted for Donald Trump.” In essence, he accused Democrats of hating cops because they don’t control them, and framed calls to “reimagine” policing as an attempt to create political militias associated with the Democratic Party. In later shows, he accused the left of hating the U.S. and unleashing mobs.
Up and down right-wing media, the same story was hammered relentlessly. In July, Breitbart News highlighted a severed pig’s head being set on fire, and in August, it echoed Trump’s naming of Black Lives Matter as a “Marxist” group. The more highbrow conservative outlet National Review compared the protests to the French Terror, writing, “The guillotiners are starting to panic as they glimpse faces of a restless mob always starved for something to top last night’s torching.” In June, Fox News wrung its hands over the cost of the protests, citing police overtime and property destruction.
Slowly, the wave of white support began to recede.
By the time Officer Sheskey shot Blake, public approval for Black Lives Matter activism had dipped, and white people’s views on race had reset almost to their default mode. FiveThirtyEight’s Michael Tesler wrote, “the protests’ impact on public opinion appears to be fading — particularly among white Americans.”
In this ebb, it was easy for right-wing media to incite vigilante violence. Emboldened by a racist worldview blasted from the White House to Fox News, a 17-year-old with a gun believed it was his duty to shoot protesters. He was praised by the very same media that planted the seed in his mind. On “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” Carlson said, “How shocked are we that 17-year-olds with rifles decided they had to maintain order when no one else would.”
Riding the Hate
Blood stained the streets of Kenosha from the shooting even as President Trump landed in the city. Two thousand miles away, on August 30, seven days after Blake was shot, and five days after Rittenhouse murdered two and injured one, more blood was spilled in Portland, Oregon, when a Trump supporter was gunned down when a right-wing caravan of trucks and cars drove through the city.
Trump’s law-and-order campaign, which appeared designed to shift the focus from his failed COVID-19 response that so far has left 180,000 dead, is now poised to destroy more lives. His tactic of demonizing protests, sowing doubt about the election and sabotaging it through attacks on the U.S. Postal Service carried about by his Postmaster General Louis DeJoy has left the United States on a collision course. In a disputed election or one that stretches on for days, clashes in the street could spiral out of control. Protests could erupt. More Kyle Rittenhouses could come into the cities looking to force “law and order” at gunpoint.
At the Kenosha roundtable, Trump repeated the nightmare scenario that feeds the right wing violence. He said Republicans stand in contrast to Democrats “who want to slash police funding, oppose using the National Guard, and want to hire radical judges and prosecutors who will release rioters, looters, and criminals.”
The stakes are high. The nation is being led to a precipice by a man so desperate to not take responsibility for the multiple crises he made worse that he is willing to fan the flames so the smoke gets in our eyes.