A couple of things happened earlier this year that perhaps did not receive the attention that they normally would have because – well, stuff happened. First, in February, the FBI “elevated to the top-level priority racially motivated violent extremism,” in the words of its director, Christopher Wray. Those domestic threats were now on par with threats posed by ISIS, for example.
In May, ABC News released the results of an investigation that showed 54 criminal cases where Donald Trump was specifically cited in violent attacks or threats of violence. (Forty-one cases were committed by the President’s supporters.) ABC couldn’t find a single case in which presidents Obama or George W. Bush had been similarly cited.
Now, as the Washington Post notes in “a wave of politically tinged violence across the country,” another Trump supporter is in the news, accused of murder. Kyle Rittenhouse is 17, an Illinois resident and Trump fan who travelled with his AR-15-style rifle to Kenosha, Wis., to be part of some kind of modern-day posse protecting private property from protesters. (The demonstrations began after the police shooting of Jacob Blake.) Mr. Rittenhouse now is charged with the murder of two people who confronted him at the protests, and injuring a third.
And yet, Mr. Rittenhouse is being made into some kind of folk hero with the help of Mr. Trump’s fans – not to mention the assistance of the President himself. Websites have sprung up to raise money for the teenager’s defence. It’s one thing for Fox News hosts to speak approvingly of vigilantism, or for Republican Senator Ron Johnson to talk about the need for “citizen soldiers” to help keep order, but it’s quite another for the President to give tacit approval of violence to his followers. Yes, it’s been happening for four years; yes, we should still be shocked.
Mr. Trump was asked at a press conference to condemn Mr. Rittenhouse’s actions, as he condemned the killing of one of his supporters in Portland and railed against violence from the “radical left,” but he refused. He said, “You saw the same tape as I saw. And he was trying to get away from them. I guess it looks like he fell and then they very violently attacked him. And it was something that we’re looking at right now, and it’s under investigation. But I guess he was in very big trouble. He would have been – probably would have been killed, but it’s under investigation.” (The Politifact fact-checker deemed many parts of that statement “false,” including that Mr. Rittenhouse was being violently attacked.)
As well, the President liked a tweet that said, “Kyle Rittenhouse is a good example of why I decided to vote for Trump.” If that’s not a nod and a wink to armed supporters, what is?
We should be worried about the spread of political violence and the President’s incitement of it not just out of concern for our American neighbours, but out of concern for the rest of the world, too. Borders won’t contain these flames when global communication carries inflammatory hatred and conspiracy theories as fast as a wildfire spreads.
Consider that both the men who murdered worshippers at mosques in New Zealand and in Quebec expressed support for Mr. Trump. The Quebec shooter was pictured wearing a Make America Great Again hat and expressing approval of the American President’s restrictive immigration policies.
The pro-Trump QAnon conspiracy theory, while ludicrous, has also proved to be a hardy carrier of hatred across borders. There were QAnon supporters in the rallies in Berlin and across Germany this weekend, which were ostensibly protesting coronavirus protection measures. (This convenient cover was blown when protesters spat at and flung homophobic slurs at the German health minister, Jens Spahn.) In Canada, the man who drove a firearm-laden pickup truck through the gates of Rideau Hall, apparently intent on harming the Prime Minister, had posted QAnon content online.
The violence flaring in the U.S. is not going to magically disappear in the months leading up to the presidential election, especially if one of the contenders considers the chaos politically valuable. As Zack Beauchamp wrote this week in Vox, “It seems that stoking conflict and raising the salience of street violence has become a core part of [Trump’s] reelection strategy.”
That’s something that should concern not just Americans, but the rest of us looking on and imagining the unimaginable – that it could happen here.
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