Right Wing Terrorism Thrives in Trump’s America
What kind of president or human being cheers on gun-toting racist agitators?
On April 19, 1995, a truck packed with ammonium nitrate fertilizer exploded in the parking lot of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City, OK. The carnage was shocking and unprecedented: 169 people killed, including 19 children; 680 persons injured; damage to 324 other buildings in a 16-block radius; 86 cars burned and destroyed. The bomb destroyed one-third of the building. The images of injured people on TV news coverage were both horrifying and disturbing.
FBI and other authorities initially believed that the bombing was the work of international terrorists, perhaps the same group that plotted the World Trade Center bombing two years prior (little did we know). But forensics traced the truck to a rental company in Kansas, which yielded sketches of two average-looking guys. Soon enough, Timothy McVeigh and then Terry Nichols, both from middle America, faced charges.
McVeigh and Nichols met in the Army and were deeply angered by the US government’s response to events in Ruby Ridge and Waco, TX. They became anti-government survivalists, a common gateway to right wing extremism. The two decided to strike back. A federal building was chosen for “maximum body count.”
The Oklahoma City bombing was the deadliest act of homegrown terrorism in American history. Twenty-five years later, right wing extremism is very much alive on American streets and just as dangerous. Its once-fringe ideas and methods have crept closer and closer to mainstream Republican Party thinking, giving it a sheen of respectability.
With full-throated encouragement from the president of the United States plus the tacit support of key law enforcement officials on the ground, armed-to-the-teeth far right wing vigilantes have taken to the streets with bad intent to engage toe-to-toe with anti-racism protesters. This volatile mix was bound to raise its ugly head in the once-sleepy Wisconsin town of Kenosha, where days before, police shot an unarmed Black man in the back seven times. The victim survived. The demonstrations began.
It wasn’t an agent of the state who shot and killed two American protesters in Kenosha. Rather, it was Kyle Rittenhouse, 17, a self-described militia member from Illinois who, according to Buzzfeed, attended a Trump rally earlier this year. He was seen walking around the demonstration site with an AR-15 rifle slung over his shoulder. At one point, cellphone footage captured Rittenhouse shooting a person in the head. Rittenhouse began to run away, and when some people gave chase, the 17-year-old turned and fired at the group, hitting “at least one.”
In the ensuing melee, a bystander called out to the police, “Hey, dude right there shot them.” Instead of immediately arresting a man who used his weapon without provocation at protesters, the Kenosha cops let Rittenhouse walk right by them and out of town. Rittenhouse was arrested the next day at his home in Illinois. He has yet to be charged.
Trump Fans Flames
President Trump made a brief photo-op visit to Kenosha on Sep. 1 (your tax dollars at work). Trump defended the shooter as acting in self-defense, even though there is no film footage to confirm that. Notably, Trump did not visit with the family of the man shot by police.
Trump’s statement to the press was his usual “law and order” bit, in which he called racial justice protesters “domestic terrorism” and “anti-American.” Trump portrayed himself as the strong leader who could single-handedly quell the tensions in towns like Kenosha. Shades of “I alone can fix it.”
Without mentioning Kenosha specifically, Democratic candidate Joe Biden accused Trump of trying to shirk responsibility. “Everyone talks about this as if I’m already president,” Biden said. “The fact is, this is Donald Trump’s America. Donald Trump has done nothing more than pour gasoline on the fire. I have condemned the violence from the very beginning.”
Right Wing Violence
As historic uprisings against racial injustice and police brutality become a part of the American landscape, adversarial right wing extremist groups have become a constant menacing presence at mostly peaceful protests. You can see them if you look hard enough: trolling demonstration areas…harassing protesters…displaying military-grade weaponry…often chummy with law enforcement.
As one observer noted, “If you get counter-protesters showing up who are armed, cops are almost always facing the Black Lives Matter and racial justice protesters, and not toward the armed counter-protesters.” (emphasis mine.)
Right wing agitators have shown up to wreak havoc on racial justice or police brutality protests at least 497 times this year, according to data collected by the Center for the Analysis of the Radical Right. The incidents have resulted in an astonishing amount of violence directed at protesters by far right wing extremists: 64 cases of simple assault, 38 instances when vigilantes drove vehicles into crowds of protesters and 387 acts of intimidation, such as making threats of physical harm, spouting racial slurs or brandishing firearms.
Six protesters were hit by vigilante bullets this summer. Three died of their wounds. Other examples, courtesy of HuffPost:
- In Iowa City, a man drove his car into a gathering of of protesters, later explaining to police that the protesters were in need of “an attitude adjustment.”
- An Army sergeant who often made threatening tweets about the Black Lives Matter movement shot and killed a protester in Austin, TX.
- In rural Bedford County, PA, a white man opened fire on a Black Lives Matter march, hitting one protester in the face.
- In Wilmington, NC, three white police officers were fired after being caught on camera making racial slurs about Black protesters. “Wipe ’em off the fucking map,” one officer said. “That’ll put ’em back four or five generations.”
- A police chief in Sioux City, IA was suspended for two weeks after getting caught with a Facebook post encouraging people to drive their cars through peaceful protests. HIT THE GAS AND HANG ON FOR THE SPEED BUMPS, the chief wrote.
- Examples abound about the comradery among law enforcement and right wing groups. In California, a cop was spotted wearing a III Percenters militia patch on his police uniform. Philadelphia police posed for selfies with vigilantes roaming a particular city neighborhood with baseball bats looking for protesters. An officer in Georgia was photographed fist-bumping an armed militia member.
We all knew it would be bad. And now we’re living through it. Behind in the polls, Trump is betting that lines will be blurred about who the good guys are and who are the bad guys, and promote a “false equivalency” argument that there are “very fine” people on both sides.
It’s a dangerous assumption to make: that people will lose sight of the moral imperative of racial justice and lose empathy for the protesters; that radical white supremacy will suddenly enter the mainstream. (Recent polling discounts either narrative.)
Donald Trump is still playing to his base. In the end, that’s all he knows. And he’s betting the house that his megaphone of racial grievances will scare enough people into submission.
I truly believe that after four years of living hell, the better angels of our nature will prevail.
I just hope it’s enough.