Gov. Greg Abbott (R-TX) has vowed to pardon Daniel Perry, who in April was convicted of murdering Garrett Foster in July 2020 during a Black Lives Matter protest in Austin, Texas, after Perry texted a friend, “I might have to kill a few people on my way to work, they are rioting outside my apartment complex," and drove his car threateningly into a crowd before shooting Foster.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) was among Republican officials who mocked the assault last October on the husband of then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, sharing conspiracy theories about the right-wing vigilante who fractured Paul Pelosi’s skull with a hammer.
In November 2021, Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ), tweeted an altered anime video showing him killing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) with a sword to the neck, earning him a formal censure from the then-Democratic-controlled U.S. House of Representatives … and pats on the back from Republican colleagues.
The 2020 Republican National Convention glorified a white couple who, on the lawn of their St. Louis mansion, brandished firearms at peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstrators.
Republican support for violence is so prolific, it has become a staple of campaign ads. Vice, for one, sees this as evidence vigilantism seeps up from the base, and incendiary media such as Fox News amplify it. While demagogues such as Alex Jones and Tucker Carlson have a history of inciting violence, the godfather of modern-day vigilantism is Donald Trump.
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Vox counts more than 40 instances, from the launch of Trump’s presidential campaign in June 2015 to the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, in which he encouraged or endorsed violence. Following his election, threats against Congress members soared more than tenfold to 9,625 incidents in 2021 alone. “Far-right terror,” says Vox, “is currently the most significant ideological threat in the US,” with a proliferation of right-wing threats against elected officials across the country. Axios published a roster filled with others.
In a notorious call for vigilantism, Trump praised child soldier Kyle Rittenhouse “as the ‘poster boy’ for the right to self-defense,” according to CNN. Weeks before traveling to Kenosha, Wis., in August 2020 where he killed two people with an AR-15-style rifle at a Black Lives Matter protest, the then-17-year-old Rittenhouse fantasized about shooting looters.
While the corporate media recognize the GOP has “made violence part of their brand,” it doesn’t answer the most important question: why this happened.
Trump’s scorched-earth racism is the pivotal factor. By winning the presidency in 2016, Trump blazed a social-media shortcut to power. His victory inspired a surge of fascist gangs such as the Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer, and obscure but even more violent outfits including Patriot Front, Resist Marxism, Rise Above Movement, Jericho March and American Guard.
Trump made it possible for any dime-store bigot to jump on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, demonize entire groups — particularly leftists like anti-fascists and BLM — and threaten violence. For those with persistence and a bit of prowess, social-media demagoguery was an easy path to notoriety, money and followers. Operating under the protection of the demagogue-in-chief, and indifference if not sympathy from elements of police, formed by the history of white supremacy, these new hatemongers were able to jump from virtual violence to the real world.
The violence began with a bang the night of Trump’s inauguration when a right-wing couple shot and nearly killed a left-wing protester in Seattle. Within months, far-right riots — and killings — took place in leftist bastions such as Berkeley, Calif., and Portland, Ore., culminating in the August 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., where a neo-Nazi rammed a crowd of counter-protesters with his car, killing Heather Heyer. The shock of the murder, and hundreds of neo-Nazis chanting “Jews will not replace us” during a torch-light parade, put extremists back on their heels.
White supremacists march on Charlottesville, Va., during the August 2017 "Unite the Right" rally that left a woman dead. Image via Karla Cote/Creative Commons.
But far-right gangs reconstituted themselves, aided by police in Portland who allowed the Proud Boys to turn the city into their fight club with almost no consequences. The George Floyd protests supercharged vigilantism as police aligned with the far right in seeing BLM and antifa as public enemy number one.
This time the explosion was even bigger: the Jan. 6 insurrection.
The only reason Trump’s attempted coup did not succeed is because his mob of thousands did not use guns, which convicted seditionist Stewart Rhodes regretted afterwards, against a police force who had every warning imaginable of the coming insurrection.
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Far from squelching the taste for violence, the failed coup whetted the appetite of Republican politicians and voters alike for lawless justice.
This raises a more fundamental question. Why do GOP voters believe it necessary to circumvent legitimate channels to enact their vision?
It wasn’t always this way, and the growing desire for vigilantism is an ominous warning sign for the future of America. In short, there is a vicious cycle from media that stokes fears for profit to a middle class fed the message that those at the bottom are to blame for society’s woes to politicians who claim deep-rooted social problems can be solved through policing at home or abroad: the war on crime, the war on drugs, the war on terror.
A crucial similarity in criminalizing social problems is they are racialized, as well. Blacks are to blame for crime, Mexicans for illegal drugs, Muslims for terrorism. This approach begins with Nixon’s Southern strategy that delivered him the White House. He used coded racial appeals such as “law and order,” “war on drugs” and “benign neglect” toward the Black community to indicate Black people were a threat whom he would protect the “silent majority” of whites from.
Before winning the 1980 presidential race, Ronald Reagan used overt dog whistles, talking of “welfare queens,” “strapping young bucks” buying steak with food stamps, saying the Voting Rights Act was “humiliating to the South,” and kicking off his general election campaign with a segregationist friendly speech endorsing states rights near Philadelphia, Miss., site of the infamous murder of three civil-rights activists in 1964.
As the right’s racial rhetoric got hotter at the presidential level, with George H.W. Bush relying on the Willie Horton ad to win the 1988 contest by implying a victory by Democrat Michael Dukakis would mean “Black rapists running amok,” the era of hate radio simultaneously dawned after Reagan gutted the Fairness Doctrine in 1987.
Soon, Republican voters were sucking on vitriol from the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Lou Dobbs, Sean Hannity and Mark Levin for decades. The relentless drumbeat that “real Americans” were under attack from feminists/Blacks/Muslims/Marxists/immigrants/Mexicans/queers — take your pick — stoked volcanic rage on the right.
But for years, Republican voters couldn’t adequately vent that anger. Newt Gingrich’s Republican revolution that put Congress in the hand of the bomb-throwers in 1994, eight years of the Bush-Cheney “war on terror”, and the white backlash to Barack Obama under the banner of the Tea Party, were unable to satisfy the desire of a rabid right to not just defeat, but to smash their foes.
The torrent of right-wing hate helped inspire Timothy McVeigh to bomb a federal building in 1995 in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people, but the atrocity undercut support for far-right extremism. The attraction of racial violence soared after the 9/11 attacks and exploded into a reinvigorated militia movement and a series of racist murders after Obama was elected.
On one side was Fox News incitement of viewer rage to stay relevant, profitable and powerful, and on the other was wild fantasies of the politics of revenge that government could not fulfill.
Enter Donald Trump. His 2016 campaign completed the electrical circuit triggering a bomb. Millions of Americans, saturated with racist grievances, could now take matters into their own hands. And many did. Trump promises even more unchecked violence if elected again in 2024, telling supporters a few months ago, “for those who have wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution.”
Trump has turned the party of law and order into one of lawlessness and chaos.