Comment and analysis - US Presidency: America on the precipice

Michael Goldhaber, IBA US CorrespondentMonday 19 October 2020

At the end of August, as racial justice protests flared in the suburb of Kenosha, halfway between Chicago and Milwaukee, a vigilante group that designated itself the ‘Kenosha Guard’ issued a call on Facebook for citizens to ‘take up arms and defend ou[r] City tonight from the evil thugs’. Promoted by the conspiracy website Infowars, the Kenosha Guard’s call gathered 300 positive RSVPs within hours, and another 2,300 ‘interested’ in attending. One Facebook user cheered: ‘Shoot to kill folks’.

Among those who turned out that night was 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse, illegally lugging an AR-15 assault rifle. As a livestream from an independent news show caught an image of Rittenhouse with three armed colleagues, the narrator commented: ‘We’ve got militia on the roof here and its pretty neat’. The police seemed to share that sentiment, as one tossed a bottle of water to Rittenhouse. ‘We appreciate you guys’, a Kenosha police officer told the Kenosha militia on video. ‘We really do’.

Minutes later, Rittenhouse shot two protesters dead. Then he strolled away through a crowd of police.

For anyone disturbed by the United States' democratic decline, the moment to act is now… the cradle of modern democracy needs election monitors from every credible quarter.

Eventually charged with murder, Rittenhouse remains a hero to many Trump supporters. Fox News, which ranked as America’s most popular TV channel over the summer, hailed the teen’s God-given right of self-defence. America’s cities are suffering from a void of law and order, suggested the Fox icon Tucker Carlson, so we should hardly be shocked that a 17-year-old filled it. One America News reported that ‘we’re in a war’ where cops are outnumbered – and that’s when ‘citizens have the right to take up arms’. Invited by mainstream journalists to condemn Kyle Rittenhouse, President Trump instead cited self-defence. On Twitter he liked a tweet: ‘K.R. is a good example of why I decided to vote for Trump’.

It was a different story a few days later in Portland, Oregon, where a leftist protester, who identified as ‘100 per cent Antifa’, killed a counter-protester from the ‘Patriot Prayer’ militia. The President instantly called the militia peaceful and vilified the shooter. After police gunned him down – in what a witness describes as an extrajudicial killing – President Trump crowed about how quickly he was ‘tak[en] care of’. That’s ‘the way it has to be’, said the President. ‘There has to be retribution when you have a crime like this’.

The reactions of federal law enforcement broadly reflect the same double standard. According to the US Crisis Monitor, 95 per cent of this summer’s protests were wholly peaceful. Nevertheless, a new Department of Justice (DoJ) and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) task force is probing ‘violent left-wing civil unrest’. Homeland Secretary Chad Wolf has assured Fox News that the DoJ is ‘working on’ arresting Antifa and Black Lives Matters leaders. The Attorney General (AG), William Barr, has urged prosecutors to charge protesters with sedition.

By contrast, the DHS is playing down right-wing threats, according to current and recent officials. In a new whistleblower complaint, the Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence alleged that this summer, Wolf ordered him ‘to modify intelligence assessments to ensure they matched up with the public comments by President Trump on the subject of Antifa and “anarchist” groups.’ Likewise, he alleged that the Department’s number two directed him to downplay ‘white supremacy’ in the latest Homeland Threat Assessment, while playing up left-wing violence. Former DHS Chief of Staff, Miles Taylor, says the White House gutted a 2018 memo by lumping the serious rising threat of militia extremism with the subsiding low-grade risks of animal rights and eco-terrorism. The President raged if the DHS focused on any issue except the Mexican border. A plan to counter homegrown terror is gathering dust. ‘[I]n this administration’, concludes the former Assistant Secretary for Threat Prevention and Security Policy, Elizabeth Neumann, nothing ‘substantive [will be] done on domestic terrorism’.

With Uncle Sam sticking his head in the sand, the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, a non-governmental organisation, has tracked the reality of violence in the United States in collaboration with Princeton University. Over the summer, it documented more than 50 instances of armed militias disrupting leftist protests, more than 40 violent right-wing counter-protests, and dozens of car-ramming attacks on leftist demonstrators.

A problem like this doesn’t emerge overnight. In a June report, The Escalating Terror Problem in the US, the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) attributed over 90 per cent of terror deaths on US soil in 2018–19 to far-right groups. Tracking up all fatalities in the US since 1994, the CSIS reckons that right-wing terror has accounted for 15 times the death toll of left-wing terror (and three times the toll of religious terror, excluding 9/11). Last year’s anti-immigrant shooting in El Paso killed more people than were killed by all left-wing terrorists over a quarter of a century.

The potential for electoral street violence by some Trump voters is manifest. Behind in the polls, the President is constantly predicting that mail-in vote fraud will rig the election against him, and constantly hinting that he won’t concede defeat. The President delights in goading his armed supporters. (During anti-lockdown protests, he tweeted: ‘LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment’.) The US has over 150 million gun owners – and sales hit a new monthly high of 3.9 million in June. The Kenosha shootings came one day after the Republican National Convention glorified a middle-aged St. Louis couple for brandishing guns at Black Lives Matters protesters who passed outside their home.

Perhaps the most likely recipe for street violence is the ‘red mirage’ scenario. Democrats are far more apt to vote by mail than Republicans, out of deference to public health experts. If only 15 per cent of mail-in votes are tallied by Election Day, according to the Bloomberg digital agency Hawkfish, then a decisive Biden victory may appear on election night as a Trump landslide, even in deepest-blue Vermont. At first the President would declare victory. Then, as the count shifts blue, he’d scream that the ‘deep state’ is staging a coup. Propagandistic news outlets would amplify the message. Social media groups and Russian troll farms would take it to extremes. (In the words of the Kenosha poster: ‘Shoot to kill folks’.) The best way to prevent such a red mirage scenario is for Biden to win decisively in key states that count their votes quickly, which is why Michael Bloomberg has recently invested $100m in Biden’s Florida campaign.

Obstreperous Trump supporters have already disrupted early voting, which is underway in a few states. For Election Day, the Republican National Committee has organised 50,000 poll watchers, nominally to guard against fraud, who Democrats regard as a force for voter suppression. AG William Barr has shown every sign that he will back the President’s machinations. Asked about the President’s call for double voting by his supporters – a crime in all 50 states and federal law – the AG equivocated that he was unsure of local law. Asked to validate the President’s unfounded claims of widespread mail-in fraud, the AG distorted a Dallas case, drawing a rebuke from local prosecutors.

In our pre-summer feature anticipating the possibility of election violence (See ‘A state of emergency for US democracy and rule of law’, Global Insight June/July 2020), Chicago law professor Eric Posner suggested reassuringly: ‘Maybe I’m too optimistic but I simply don’t believe he’ll try to create a civil insurrection. I don’t believe that even his staunchest supporters would respond by taking up arms. There just isn’t that tradition in the US.’

After a season of strife often welcomed or condoned by law enforcement, a pessimistic prophecy may ring truer. ‘It is impossible to carry out democratic elections’ when non-state actors ‘have access to violence’, warns the Yale historian Timothy Snyder in On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. Sometimes, the violence that subverts democracy takes the form of ‘apparently spontaneous’ protests. In The Road to Unfreedom, Snyder explains that paramilitary activity in any form – and ‘its merger with government power’ – is an urgent sign that the rule of law is collapsing. When that process reaches the point where ‘the pro-leader paramilitary and the official police and military intermingle’, Snyder concludes in On Tyranny, then fascism is upon us. In today’s US, senior generals have thankfully pushed back against the President’s wish to deploy the military to the domestic ‘battlespace’. But the DoJ and DHS, to say nothing of local police, have proved more amenable to the President’s authoritarian tendencies.

A loose incipient alliance of paramilitary actors with local police, and elements of federal law enforcement, is discernible. In August, the kind cops of Kenosha took care that Kyle Rittenhouse was well-hydrated before his killings. In July, members of the Proud Boys militia mixed with police unionists at a party after a Trump-Pence event in Philadelphia. The FBI spotlighted ‘white supremacist infiltration of law enforcement’ as early as 2006, and noted in 2015 that right-wing terror investigations ‘often have identified active links to law enforcement officers’. Last year, the Plain View Project found racist Facebook posts by hundreds of police, and ProPublica linked dozens of US border patrol officers – from the agency known for throwing migrant children in cages, and Portland protesters in unmarked vans – to a secret Facebook group that trafficked in obscene anti-Latino jokes and images.

For anyone disturbed by the US’ democratic decline, the moment to act is now. Unfortunately, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) is moving in the wrong direction. The OSCE plans to reduce its delegation of US election observers from 500 to 30, giving the US’ pandemic crisis undue precedence over its democracy crisis. Dan Coats, the outspoken Republican ex-Senator who retired as Director of National Intelligence last year, wants a panel of distinguished Americans like former justices David Souter and Anthony Kennedy to oversee the vote. But there’s no reason to stop there. It’s time for an all-points bulletin: the cradle of modern democracy needs election monitors from every credible quarter. There’s no shortage of empty plane seats.

Pic: Unrest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, August 2020. Michael R. Schmidt / Shutterstock.com