Well, that escalated quickly. Only a couple of weeks ago, Donald Trump and his allies were using the term "self-defense" to condone the behavior of armed right-wingers who showed up at Black Lives Matter protests to intimidate demonstrators — and also to justify the alleged murder of two protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, by 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse.
Now Trump has expanded the universe of excuses for such lethal violence, suggesting that it's acceptable in the name of "retribution."
In this case, the lethal violence was inflicted on Michael Reinoehl, a self-identified supporter of antifa, which isn't an organized movement so much as a loose association of left-wing activists who use confrontational tactics to fight perceived fascists. Most people who identify as antifa aren't violent, but some have become enamored of seeking violent confrontations with far-right or white supremacist groups. Reinoehl appears to have been such a person: He seemingly confessed on camera to killing a right-wing activist named Aaron Danielson during an Aug. 29 skirmish in Portland, Oregon.
U.S. marshals shot and killed Reinoehl near Olympia, Washington, on Sept. 3, and justified the shooting by claiming he had pulled a gun, which at least one witness says is not true. But when Trump discussed the killing, he didn't even bother with the usual talk about how it was necessary to protect the officers from harm. Instead, he claimed it was justified as "retribution." And because Trump loves to play-act being a tough guy while avoiding all difficult decisions, he tried to take personal credit for ordering Reinoehl's death.
"Two and a half days went by and I put out, when are you going to go get him?" Trump bragged to Fox News host Jeanine Pirro. "That's the way it has to be. There has to be retribution when you have crime like this."
Retribution: That's how Trump sees this killing. Not, as law enforcement claims, a necessary self-defense action in the course of trying to apprehend a criminal suspect. Trump seems to understand this as one faction getting revenge on a rival faction for the murder of one of their own.
That's even more alarming when you consider that Aaron Danielson, the man killed in Portland, had no connection to law enforcement. He was a member of Patriot Prayer, a militia-style group whose main purpose is to descend on progressive communities, mostly Portland and Seattle, to troll local residents and try to provoke street fights with antifa and other left-wing activists. With this talk of "retribution" talk, Trump is explicitly linking law enforcement paid for by taxpayers with extralegal militias. Effectively, the president views them as part of the same faction and in opposition to antifa, a group Trump regularly — and falsely — conflates with progressives and Democrats generally.
At first blush, it would seem unwise for Trump and his far-right allies to justify killing Reinoehl by invoking the logic of gangland murders. Trump and his supporters have sought to celebrate Danielson as a martyr, and his death is being leveraged for maximum propaganda value, as "proof" of the supposed outbreak of leftist violence that, in turn, justifies violent assaults from the right. One would think that capturing Reinoehl alive so he could be tried in court would have aided this propaganda campaign, creating a show trial that would enable the telling and retelling of the fable of Danielson's martyrdom.
But there is another, deeper purpose to this "retribution" talk. For one thing, it encourages police and right-wing militias to see themselves on the same "team," hastening a process that was already well underway, as evidenced by the cordial treatment Rittenhouse and other militia types got from police on the night he shot three people in Kenosha.
For another, Trump is signaling to his followers that they don't even need to wait for a semi-plausible "self-defense" situation to justify using violent force to silence leftists. Instead, he's trying to redefine what constitute "legitimate" reasons for his followers to use violence.
He kept up the excuse-making on Sunday night, at a rally in Henderson, Nevada, bragging that Reinoehl was "taken care of in 15 minutes."
The implication isn't subtle, especially as Trump has ranted for years about how law enforcement is supposedly hobbled by all these silly rules about respecting people's constitutional rights. Now he's encouraging his followers to see due process and laws against vigilante violence as unjust burdens, and suggesting they should just define for themselves when lethal force is justified against people they see as "un-American."
Trump has long flirted with the idea of turning the sea of armed and angry white men who worship him into a militia he can use to seize power he can't win through democratic means. During the 2016 campaign, Trump told his supporters that "Second Amendment people" should consider taking action against Hillary Clinton, if she won the election.
Trump's current Democratic opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, has a healthy lead in the polls, and Trump likely understands that he can't win a fair election. The blueprint for stealing this one — helpfully laid out last week by convicted felon and long-time Trump ally Roger Stone, in an interview with Infowars — will rely on an alliance between law enforcement and armed right-wing civilians to prevent people from voting, prevent election officials from counting the votes, and the suppressing the inevitable street protests by Trump's opponents demanding that votes be counted.
So Trump is preparing his people — both the armed civilians and his right-wing allies in law enforcement — to take violent action by teeing up the rationales now. Using false claims of "voter fraud," he's encouraging his followers to be "poll watchers," an obvious euphemism for trying to intimidate anyone whose race, appearance or demeanor makes them look like a probable Democrat. Now he's pushing the boundaries of what constitutes a legitimate use of violence.
The beauty of "retribution" as an excuse for violence is how flexible it is. Implicit in Trump's unhinged comments is a belief that laws against murder are too strict, and that his followers should feel free to transgress them if they conclude that the target of their ire has it coming. In lionizing people like Rittenhouse or the marshals who shot Reinoehl out of "retribution," Trump is sending a clear signal to his followers: Forget what the law says, and do whatever you think is necessary to "make America great again."