The President Is Goading Anti-Lockdown Militias to Violence
We must not overlook the danger of Trump’s signaling.
Donald Trump tweets so many outrageous things and tells so many lies, it’s easy for any particular statement to get buried in the shitstorm.
But a presidential call to “liberate” states led by elected officials of the opposition party while Trump supporters carry guns into their state capitols shouldn’t be one of them.
A call to arms
In the last three weeks the country has seen a series of “anti-lockdown” protests in states with Democratic governors. Two protesting Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s Covid-19 emergency stay-at-home order received the most media coverage. Rifle-carrying members of the Michigan Liberty Militia entered the statehouse, some carrying signs saying “Make treason punishable by hanging.”
Republican legislators, instead of loudly condemning these threats of violence, voted to authorize a suit against the Governor for exceeding her authority.
Trump tweeted “Liberate Virginia,” “Liberate Michigan” and stressed the “Second Amendment” (read: “Bring Your Guns”) dimension of the protests.
Alignment between Trump, the GOP establishment and armed confederate flag-wavers isn’t new. But these demonstrations saw a level of coordinated action and messaging that went beyond their previous associations. The anti-lockdown rallies were initiated and anchored by former White House officials, a number of state-based conservative policy groups, and a coalition of high-level GOP donors. Attorney General William Barr has aligned the Justice Department with the protesters’ goals.
Most important, Trump’s tweets appeared to back the rifle-carrying militia component of the protests, as the President called for defying legal authority. His “liberate” message was embraced as a “call to arms” throughout the insurrectionist right wing. There was an immediate surge in Twitter posts about the President and the “boogaloo” (a term denoting armed insurrection in the world of the conspiracy-theory-infused right).
Pivot to an “anti-lockdown” message
The tightening of the Trump-GOP-Militia embrace is rooted in the way the Covid-19 crisis has affected Trump’s re-election plans. Pre-pandemic, Trump and his team were confident they had a formula that would win the President a second term. Run on racism and a “humming economy.”
Covid-19 has thrown that plan up in the air. The economy is in shambles and all but certain to be in trouble through the election. Trump’s China-bashing resonates in many sectors. But it hasn’t proven sufficient to stem the loss of support due to his disastrous handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and the embarrassing “briefings” where his bleach-injecting ignorance on display.
A repackaging of the racism, xenophobia and all-wealth-to-the-rich core of Trumpism was required. The result was insightfully dissected in an April 17 Twitter thread by Jeremy Menchik, a political scientist at Boston University, which states, “If the election is a fight between Trump vs governors who refuse to open their economies, Trump doesn’t have to defend his record on Covid-19. He’s an advocate for liberty!” Menchik goes on to argue that the protests “will frame the 2020 election as a choice between the pro-open economy Trump versus the Washington insider #BeijingBiden who is complicit in China’s efforts to hurt working class Americans.”
It is a powerful message with the potential to influence large numbers well beyond Trump’s base. With the economic crisis deepening, millions have to worry about how to feed, clothe and house themselves and their families as well as keeping them healthy.
Trump’s problem is that the majority is still concerned about reopening too soon and protecting people’s health. So drawing from the Tea Party playbook, the GOP high command likely decided it was time for physical demonstrations to gin up their base, grab headlines, and infuse every news cycle with their frame on the 2020 contest.
But who is going to go out there in a crowd with no social distancing, no masks and a message that, at least initially, is not going to be popular? That’s not a risk big funders, GOP lawyers and elected officials are going to take!
How about blatant conspiracy mongers, confederate flag-wavers, and armed militias? These are the people willing to defy public health regulations and carry signs that say, “Sacrifice the Weak.”
So the welcome mat was put out for them by the President himself.
Juan González drew the appropriate conclusion on Democracy Now! on April 21:
I’d like our viewers and listeners to ask themselves a question: If hundreds of African Americans or Latinos showed up in cities around the country brandishing automatic weapons, what would be the response of the country to this? Why is this being almost accepted and normalized now as a method of protest? …we should make no mistake, that this country is edging closer and closer to neo-fascist authoritarianism.
Stave off radical change
There is a deeper level as well. Unlike the narcissist in the White House, the people in the top echelon of the fossil fuel industry, the military-industrial complex and the leading right-wing billionaires have bigger concerns than Trump individually. To them, he’s just the best choice for implementing their agenda of transferring more wealth to the 1%, more austerity for the 99%, doing nothing about climate change and maintaining U.S. global hegemony through military might. Trumpism is also their ideal vehicle for suppressing opposition to this unpopular program by smashing the labor movement and undermining the power of communities of color through large-scale disenfranchisement, incarceration and deportation.
These parasites aren’t haters of Joe Biden. They could easily live with a President who carried out the “back to the old normal” program that Biden often articulates. But the heavyweights in the Trump coalition do not believe a Biden administration could possibly pull that off.
Those who guided Trump to power are closely attuned to the political winds. They can count. They see that that the pandemic is sparking tenant organizing, rent strikes, job actions and worker strikes that demand protections for renters, workers and the poor way beyond anything that existed pre-Covid-19.
They know that even before the pandemic, people under 30 were likely the most left-wing generation in decades. They see that Covid-19 fightback efforts like Bernie Sanders’ post-campaign stance and the People’s Bailout, and many others are pushing demands for structural change into the mainstream. They notice that even the major liberal media are carrying critiques not just of the disparities in the way Covid-19 is impacting different populations, but of long-standing inequalities in U.S. society. They see handwriting on the wall as labor organizations support incarcerated people, climate justice activists rally for immigrant rights and a general spirit of “social solidarity” builds among a host of vulnerable and less vulnerable sectors.
They observe the New York Times running a major piece titled “The America We Need” which more or less promote Bernie’s program without Bernie. They monitor demographic change and know that their core base among older whites is declining while the country’s proportion of people of color is growing.
Their nightmare is our dream
They add it all up and see a Biden win as a dangerous open door. They believe coming out of the pandemic there will be irresistible pressure on a new administration to provide universal health and economic protection for working people, tax the wealthy, tackle climate change and restore voting rights.
They fear even small steps in those directions would start an avalanche capable of toppling their already shaky neo-liberal order.
So they go all in for Trump and the GOP, and deploy fascist militias as the shock troops of their campaign.
Historical experience shows that when a powerful wing of a ruling class throws in with grassroots fascists, actual fascism moves from back-drawer possibility to imminent danger. We need to be as clear-eyed as our enemies about the stakes in the current polarization, the possible roads ahead, and where the pivot point of battle lies.
They think November will mark a choice between two roads. That’s one thing they are right about.
A longer version of this article first appeared on Organizing Upgrade.
Max Elbaum is a member of the Convergence Magazine editorial board and the author of Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao and Che (Verso Books, Third Edition, 2018), a history of the 1970s-‘80s ‘New Communist Movement’ in which he was an active participant. He is also a co-editor, with Linda Burnham and María Poblet, of Power Concedes Nothing: How Grassroots Organizing Wins Elections (OR Books, 2022).