On Saturday, protests in Portland turned violent after a convoy of Trump supporters drove into the city, their pickup trucks filled with American flags and in some cases people carrying weapons (although supporters said many of them were paintball guns). Late Saturday night, police and independent journalists on the scene reported that a man was shot and killed after clashing with protesters. While his name has not been officially released, Trump supporters on Twitter identified him as a Trump loyalist, and witnesses reported he was wearing a hat with the insignia of Patriot Prayer, a far-right group based in Washington that has disrupted Black Lives Matter protests and fought with anti-fascist groups in the past (the head of the group later confirmed to the New York Times that the man who died was a member of Patriot Prayer.) Hours later, Donald Trump posted a storm of tweets about the protests, in which he retweeted criticism of Portland’s mayor, Ted Wheeler—a Democrat—including comments that suggested Wheeler was guilty of war crimes and had “blood on his hands.”
Trump’s rhetoric on the Black Lives Matter protests, not just in Oregon but in other states as well, has been ramping up as the election draws closer, painting what he clearly hopes will be a frightening picture of them as ongoing orgies of violence orchestrated by the shadowy, malevolent group known as Antifa (despite the fact that no organization by that name exists). And he and his supporters—both inside the White House as well as outside it—have taken every opportunity to lay the blame for abetting that violence on Democratic politicians like Wheeler and Oregon governor Kate Brown, for what Trump claims is a lack of action against the protesters, including a failure to call in federal troops. “The only way you will stop the violence in the high crime Democrat run cities is through strength!” he tweeted on Sunday, in addition to retweeting a claim (untrue, as Vox has pointed out) that high crime rates only occur in cities or states run by Democrats.
While the president has not explicitly called for violence during the protests, he has made it clear whose side he is on: he invited a couple who brandished weapons during a protest to speak at the Republican convention, and following the death of the Patriot Prayer member in Portland, he retweeted a video clip of another convoy of his supporters heading into the city and called them “GREAT PATRIOTS!” Trump and his administration have also done their best to explicitly tie the violence to Joe Biden, whom they accuse of being soft on violence because of his support for Black Lives Matter protests—Trump followers have recently started using the hashtag #BidenRiots on Twitter, and the president has retweeted them enthusiastically and often. The worldview that Trump is clearly hoping to encourage in voters’ minds is that the violence in Portland and elsewhere is a) a result of the liberal sympathies and general weakness of the Democratic party and by extension the weakness of Joe Biden, and b) that only Trump can ensure that law and order—or “LAW & ORDER!” as he tweeted again on Sunday—is maintained, thanks to the use of federal troops like the ones he sent into DC and Portland not long after the death of George Floyd.
This strategy would be fairly obvious to anyone who has been following the news and/or the president’s Twitter feed over the past few months, but as it turns out, we don’t need to read between the lines, because departing White House adviser Kellyanne Conway spelled it out in so many words during an interview last week on Fox & Friends, in which she said “the more chaos and anarchy and vandalism and violence reigns, the better it is for the very clear choice on who’s best on public safety and law and order.” And Trump seems determined to do whatever he can to make this connection clear: on Saturday night, the White House announced that he will visit Kenosha, Wisconsin, where 17-year-old Trump supporter Kyle Rittenhouse shot several people—killing two of them—during protests on Tuesday night. The president also liked a tweet commending Rittenhouse for being a hero. As Democratic Representative Karen Bass of California said during Sunday’s “State of the Union” on CNN, Trump’s proposed visit to Kenosha has “one purpose and one purpose only, and that is to agitate things and to make things worse.” Wisconsin’s governor has asked him not to come.
When writing about Trump’s Kenosha visit, or his remarks on Portland and its mayor, the media need to be explicit about the political calculations and violent arithmetic that lie behind them. As Edwin Rios put it in Mother Jones, the president’s comments “serve to instigate the violence-riddled vision of American cities he thinks is true. He leverages his platform to decry anti-racist protesters, frustrated at the near-monthly injustices they are seeing as ‘agitators’ to reinforce the misleading notion that American cities, specifically Democrat-led ones, are unruly and in shambles. It’s a Nixonian message from a time long past that’s meant to sow discontent, to create a chaotic view of American life months before his reelection and depict an unstable society that he believes he alone can fix.”
Here’s more on Trump and the protests:
- Intense barrage: The New York Times has a rundown of what the paper calls “an intense barrage of Twitter messages” posted by the president over the weekend, a series of tweets that embraced fringe conspiracy theories about the coronavirus death toll being exaggerated and repeated the idea that protests in Portland and elsewhere are actually part of an organized coup d’état against him. “In a concentrated predawn burst, the president posted or reposted 89 messages between 5:49 a.m. and 8:04 a.m. on Sunday on top of 18 the night before,” the newspaper reports, “many of them inflammatory comments or assertions about violent clashes in Portland, Oregon.”
- Stay the hell out: Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler reacted on Sunday to Trump’s tweets attacking him and other Democratic officials in the wake of the fatal shooting Saturday night, saying at a news conference: “I’d appreciate that either the president support us or stay the hell out of the way.” Wheeler went on to ask: “Do you seriously wonder, Mr. President, why this is the first time in decades that America has seen this level of violence? It’s you who have created the hate and division.” He added to reporters: “My response is as the president of the United States and somebody who has been perpetrating divisive and hateful language for four years — for him to now stand here and say that it’s unexpected and act as though he is shocked, is appalling to me.”
- Unacceptable: Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden pinned part of the blame for the violence in Portland and elsewhere on Trump, asking: “What does President Trump think will happen when he continues to insist on fanning the flames of hate and division in our society and using the politics of fear to whip up his supporters? He is recklessly encouraging violence.” Biden called the shooting in Portland unacceptable, said he condemned violence “unequivocally” regardless of whether it came from the left or the right, and challenged Trump to do the same. He also warned of becoming “a country at war with ourselves. A country that accepts the killing of fellow Americans who do not agree with you. A country that vows vengeance toward one another.”