The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion It’s obscene to focus on how violence affects the vote. But it is our reality.

President Trump speaks at the White House on Thursday, the final night of the Republican National Convention. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

It is natural but more than a little obscene to focus on the electoral implications of political violence. How do armed skirmishes poll in Maricopa County? How does arson play in Florida’s 13th District? Who gets a bump when Americans threaten to kill each other in the streets? It is like focusing on the horse race while the grandstand burns around you.

This is our sobering reality: Organized groups of Americans are exploiting social tensions to set up armed confrontations that can move toward violence, with any provocation captured on viral video. Some of the groups seek racial, ethnic or religious supremacy and warn of dark conspiracies against “real” Americans. Others oppose capitalism, imperialism and colonialism, and seek to overturn the existing social and political order.

These movements are parallel but not symmetrical. Groups on the extreme right are far more extensive and prolific in their violence than groups on the extreme left. But both share a similar, short-fused creed, best summarized by one activist in Kenosha, Wis.: “If you kill one of us, it’s time for us to kill one of yours.” This is the mental groundwork for escalation in every society that falls into armed conflict.

In this atmosphere — where the wrong word or action can encourage bloodshed — there is one urgent, overriding political question: Is a candidate calming the situation or inflaming it for his or her perceived advantage? Anyone feeding conflict is committing a crime against democracy, a sin against self-government.

In the 2020 presidential election, we have one candidate, Joe Biden, who strongly and routinely criticizes the excesses of both left and right. And we have one candidate who strongly and routinely criticizes the excesses of the left, while claiming that the entire left is complicit in those excesses. “They’re not protesters,” President Trump said of protesters on Aug. 28, “those are anarchists, they’re agitators, they’re rioters, they’re looters.”

More than this, Trump has sent messages of encouragement to agitators on the hard right. Remember in April when Trump tweeted, “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!,” seemingly with the aim of rallying armed protesters against that state’s public health measures in response to the pandemic? In the same Twitter spasm, he sent the message: “LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!” This gratuitous mention of gun rights reads like an air kiss to his most paranoid armed supporters.

As President Trump threatens to unleash the military on American cities roiled in civil unrest, it's clear that he's embracing his inner Nixon. (Video: The Washington Post)

More recently, Trump described a caravan of MAGA activists streaming into Portland, Ore., to confront the left as “Great Patriots!” And he later tried to explain away their aggressiveness. “The big backlash going on in Portland cannot be unexpected,” he tweeted. “The people of Portland won’t put up with no safety any longer.” And so we have the right-wing version of root-cause thinking — the employment of explanation as justification.

Those who doubt this general characterization of the two main presidential candidates should engage in a little thought experiment. If you went up to a Trump supporter in Portland — someone armed with a MAGA hat, pepper spray, a paintball gun and maybe a little something more — and asked if he or she thought that Trump had their back, the only reasonable response would be “Absolutely!” But if you went up to an anarchist holding a molotov cocktail and asked if Biden had their back, the response would almost certainly be that Biden is a tool of the establishment, bought and sold by Wall Street and alternately manipulated by Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big Beef and the prison-industrial complex.

The difference here could hardly be more dramatic. With the support of his party’s establishment, Biden is willing to criticize the hard left even as he is willing to call out police misconduct. Trump, in contrast, has adopted a policy of no enemies to the right. It doesn’t matter if you are a white nationalist, a neo-Confederate, an anti-immigrant zealot or a QAnon true believer; support for Trump is redemption in Trump’s own eyes. In the process, Trump is normalizing beliefs and behaviors that are favorable to the growth of violence.

Trump is not being innovative or creative in these efforts. He treads the well-worn path of authoritarians the world over. An atmosphere of social conflict and chaos allows a strongman to offer himself as the only solution. Encouraging lawlessness and disorder is the favorite pastime of law-and-order rulers.

The shock comes in seeing the tumor of such tactics burst with a rally on the South Lawn of the White House. In the aftermath, the question to American voters is blunt: Will we allow the poisoner of our civic culture to be its doctor? A healthy democracy will refuse to reward the author of its own discord.

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