As the 2020 presidential campaign enters its final two weeks, we look at the past four years of the Trump presidency with investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill of The Intercept. His podcast “Intercepted” has just released the fourth chapter in a seven-part audio documentary titled American Mythology, which critically examines the Trump presidency and places it within a larger historical context. Scahill says Trump has empowered white supremacist vigilantes and given permission to law enforcement to act extrajudicially to enforce a racist status quo, but he cautions that “Donald Trump is not an aberration of U.S. history or some anomaly, but he’s a very overt representation of many of the absolute most violent, destructive, racist, xenophobic trends in U.S. history.”
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
President Trump campaigned in Michigan, Wisconsin and Nevada over the weekend as he scrambles to pick up more support in critical swing states in these last two closing weeks of the 2020 race. Speaking in Muskegon, Michigan, Saturday, President Trump demanded Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer reopen the state. The crowd soon started chanting “Lock her up.” Trump responded by saying, “Lock them all up.”
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: You got to get your governor to open up your state, OK? And get your schools open. Get your schools open. The schools have to be open, right?
CROWD: Lock her up! Lock her up! Lock her up!
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Lock her — lock ’em all up.
CROWD: Lock her up! Lock her up! Lock her up!
AMY GOODMAN: Trump’s remarks came just less than two weeks after the FBI and authorities in Michigan arrested 13 men with ties to armed right-wing groups, including six men who allegedly plotted to kidnap Michigan Governor Whitmer and take her hostage. A seventh man was arrested in connection with the kidnapping plot and charged on Thursday with suspicion of material support in an act of terrorism. Over the weekend, federal prosecutors released videos of training exercises carried out by the men accused of plotting to kidnap Whitmer. The videos show heavily armed men in tactical gear firing assault rifles and Taser weapons. In one video, one of the arrested men talks about killing, quote, “government thugs.”
BRANDON CASERTA: If this whole thing, you know, starts to happen, I’m telling you what, dude, I’m taking out as many as those mother[bleep] as I can. Every single one, dude. Every single one.
AMY GOODMAN: On Sunday, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer appeared on Meet the Press and criticized President Trump.
GOV. GRETCHEN WHITMER: You know, it’s incredibly disturbing that the president of the United States, 10 days after a plot to kidnap, put me on trial and execute me — 10 days after that was uncovered, the president is at it again and inspiring and incentivizing and inciting this kind of domestic terrorism. It is wrong. It’s got to end. It is dangerous, not just for me and my family, but for public servants everywhere who are doing their jobs and trying to protect their fellow Americans.
AMY GOODMAN: FBI Director Christopher Wray recently warned Congress that “racially motivated violent extremism” is the primary threat of domestic terrorism.
President Trump’s call to “lock them all up” is part of a pattern where he openly calls for the arrests of his political opponents and critics, including the Democratic presidential nominee, former President Obama — who’s going on the road to campaign for Biden on Wednesday — and 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
As the presidential campaign enters its final two weeks, we’re spending the hour looking at these recent developments and the past four years of the Trump presidency, from his crackdown on immigration to his use of racialized fearmongering and incitement to run the country.
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We’re joined by investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill of The Intercept. His podcast Intercepted just released the fourth chapter in a seven-part audio documentary series titled American Mythology: The Presidency of Donald Trump. Jeremy Scahill is the author of several books, including Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army and Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield, also the name of his film.
Jeremy, welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. We want to talk about a number of the issues you’re covering in this really comprehensive documentary series you’re doing, looking at the past four years. But let’s start with what happened this weekend. Let’s start with, once again, President Trump this time not saying “liberate Michigan,” but joining in a chant as the people around him call “Lock he up,” talking about Governor Whitmer, who was just the target of a plot to be kidnapped and perhaps lynched, brought to Wisconsin, where you grew up, to be tried. Respond to what’s taking place right now.
JEREMY SCAHILL: You know, Amy, I think that what’s become very, very clear over these four years is that Donald Trump is not an aberration of U.S. history or some anomaly, but he is a very overt representation of many of the absolute most violent, destructive, racist, xenophobic trends in U.S. history.
Now, we can talk about the way that he has empowered white nationalists, white supremacists, encouraged their violence, but I think that it’s important to set that in a broader context of Trump being essentially a Trojan horse for the most extreme policies of the Republican Party. The Republican Party is one of the most dangerous political bodies on the face of the Earth today. And so, while it is important to focus on the activities of individual militias, the plot against Governor Whitmer, the use of vehicles to try to murder protesters, we can’t do it at the expense of recognizing that these are sort of the unofficial shock troops of what is a long-term Republican agenda that has at its center white supremacy, anti-worker policies, anti-women policies and, certainly with Mike Pence in the White House, a right-wing Christian supremacist theocratic ideology that’s manifesting itself right now in the court system.
So, what we’re seeing is Trump using a tactic that was used against Black people in this country for centuries, where you have these unofficial forces that are doing the lynching and then those in power are saying, “Oh, well, we didn’t do that. You know, we’re going to rustle up those good old boys and put them on trial” — if they would even do that. The reality is that there is this nexus between the white supremacist unofficial forces, the shock troops of this administration, and then Trump cultivating so-called law enforcement as a political class and sort of appealing to the police nationwide to also come out front and center as his racialized shock troops.
So, all of this can be traced to the throughlines of white supremacist politics in official Washington, as well as the broader racist, xenophobic culture in the United States. That’s what we’re seeing right now, is a manifestation of what Donald Trump has now made clear, that these strands of American history are alive, well and very, very deadly.
AMY GOODMAN: Last week, President Trump appeared to admit that he ordered U.S. Marshals to carry out the extrajudicial killing of the anti-fascist activist Michael Reinoehl in Washington state on September 3rd. He had been accused of killing a far-right activist during a protest in Portland. This is Trump.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We sent in the U.S. Marshals. Took 15 minutes. It was over. Fifteen minutes, it was over. We got him. They knew who he was. They didn’t want to arrest him. And 15 minutes, that ended.
JEREMY SCAHILL: You know, Amy —
AMY GOODMAN: Can you respond to this, Jeremy?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Look, there’s a word for what it appears happened there, and that’s “assassination.” And it appears to be certainly the way that Trump is bragging about it. Now, we don’t have all of the details, but Donald Trump is speaking about this as a political assassination of an American citizen on U.S. soil. And it appears that they have lied or at least dramatically misled the public into believing that there was some epic shootout that took place. It sounds, based on the president’s own description, that this was an assassination.
And I think as we all watch in horror at the kidnappings that have taken place of protesters, at the murder of unarmed Black people in this country, at the ramming with vehicles of police, that, again, we are a nation that has long assassinated its own people when they become politically inconvenient or when we consider them to be less-than-humans getting too uppity. I recall the murder, the assassination of Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton in Chicago. We’ve had civil rights leaders and presidential candidates assassinated. We’ve had a president assassinated in this country. And I think that this tendency to sort of act as though Trump has crossed the Rubicon is ahistorical. Trump represents a dark part of American history that we have never fully reckoned with.
And we have both parties in this country have continued to empower Donald Trump. The Democrats, for all of their constant harping on Trump being the worst president in history, this great threat to democracy as we know it and the future of the republic, should be asked: Why have you consistently voted to give this dangerous tyrant, as you characterize him, sweeping surveillance powers, the ability to spy on American citizens? You think that these votes that the Democrats are backing in the Congress that have to do with surveillance and paramilitarization of law enforcement, that these are somehow disconnected from the fact that we now have a president openly celebrating the assassination of an American citizen on U.S. soil?
The powers of the executive branch have been so radically broadened, beginning really in the Ford administration, but particularly after 9/11. And when we had a constitutional law professor as president for eight years, instead of moving to radically rein in the powers of the presidency, what we saw was Obama utilize them himself. Now, Obama wasn’t running around whacking U.S. citizens on American soil, but he did assassinate citizens overseas, including a 16-year-old American citizen who was never accused of any crime of terrorism, who Obama had killed in a drone strike.
So, you know, the dangers of Donald Trump — I’m not trying to minimize anything about Donald Trump. I think this is a dangerous, dangerous despot. But if we refuse to recognize how we got Donald Trump and the historical context of what he’s doing as president and that it is rooted in American history, if we don’t reckon with that, then voting Donald Trump out of office is just one step. We still have this rotten system that can be exploited by another Trump, or even by a Democrat who claims to be hoping and changing, left and right.
AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy, back on the issue of the white supremacists, the Michigan attorney general also warned, when people talked about them being kind of like Keystone Cops-esque and we see the video of them practicing shooting, tasering, the terrifying idea that they would not stop at kidnapping her, but, as they had promised in the past, lynching her — the Michigan attorney general said this is just the tip of the iceberg. You have President Trump’s own FBI, even if Christopher Wray is not exactly his ally, and the Department of Homeland Security, Chad Wolf, coming out with this report saying that white supremacist violent extremists are the number one domestic terrorist threat in this country. Far more than international threats to the United States are white supremacist, right-wing extremists.
JEREMY SCAHILL: You know, I mean, and clearly, the Trump administration, if they’ve even looked at that information, have taken that and said, “OK, this is a good thing. Let’s continue to encourage them.” Donald Trump is doing what authoritarians throughout history have done. When they’re asked to condemn the violence of unofficial forces, they will grudgingly do that, while at the same time saying things like, you know, “Stand down and stand by” — in other words, “Wait and see.”
But I really want to emphasize that you cannot separate these white supremacist militias’ alleged plots to kidnap Democratic governors in this country from the fact that Trump has cultivated law enforcement as a political class, and he has openly and repeatedly encouraged them to act extrajudicially, to beat people harder, to not respect their rights. Trump threatened to send in the U.S. military at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests. Trump encouraged mayors and governors to beat them harder in the streets. We have a paramilitarized state of law enforcement in this country that also often acts as a white supremacist gang, particularly when facing down African Americans or Brown people or people of color. You know, that is something that I fear, that if we focus too much on the threat of white supremacist private actors at the expense of recognizing how the taxpayer-funded official forces also serve that same function, and with the full backing of the White House, that we’re sort of being misdirected here. This is a systemic problem. And the Proud Boys of the world and the Ku Klux Klans of the world and the militias of the world, they essentially are auxiliary forces for official government forces that often function as effective white supremacist militias, particularly in Black communities.
AMY GOODMAN: And then you have, for example, Kenosha, where they come together, where you have these white vigilantes come in, saying they are protecting private property, and the authorities there, the law enforcement authorities, are supporting them. And then you have —
JEREMY SCAHILL: Giving them water.
AMY GOODMAN: — Kyle Rittenhouse — giving them water, saying, “We support you here.” And then you have this 17-year-old, Kyle Rittenhouse, who opened fire and kills two Black Lives Matter activists. President Trump defends him.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Yeah. I mean, Donald —
AMY GOODMAN: And he is not killed by federal authorities, as we saw happen in Oregon.
JEREMY SCAHILL: No. And, in fact, at these Black Lives Matter protests, when these vile so-called counterprotesters show up, you know, we’ve seen people fire bow and arrow — you know, arrows from crossbows at protesters. We’ve seen the use of vehicles as a lethal or semi-lethal weapon against protesters — more than a hundred cases of individuals using their cars. And I believe, at last count, eight of them were police officers that actually had used vehicles to ram into protesters.
But Donald Trump, on a domestic level, is saying that someone like Kyle Rittenhouse is sort of — you know, he’s misunderstood, and he’s essentially on the right side of history. And he does the same thing abroad. You know, Trump has pardoned outright war criminals who have committed massacres against civilians abroad. And at home, he has, at his rallies, offered to pay the legal fees of people that beat up protesters. He has encouraged the police to act with more brutality. He has consistently staked out a position that says that if you kill in the name of protecting the real America — white America — then we’re going to be there for you, we’ve got your back.
And that’s a very, very frightening, overt manifestation of a white supremacy that’s at the core of this country, that has never been fully addressed. And it’s why we’re seeing someone like Trump able to pull this off. We do not have a true opposition in the form of the Democratic Party on a legislative level. Quite the contrary, they’ve consistently supported some of Trump’s most dangerous tools available to the executive branch.