Seeking a more lenient sentence for Patrick Eugene Stein’s plot to murder hundreds of Somali immigrants in a small Kansas town, Stein’s attorneys turned to a novel strategy: They blamed the inspiration for his actions on Donald Trump.
“The court cannot ignore the circumstances of one of the most rhetorically mold-breaking, violent, awful, hateful and contentious presidential elections in modern history, driven in large measure by the rhetorical China shop bull who is now our president,” the lawyers wrote.
Stein and his two cohorts planned their attack to take place the day after the November 2016 election. Anticipating a Hillary Clinton victory, the three Kansans wanted to make a violent first strike against her presidency by setting off a set of Timothy McVeigh-style truck bombs at a Muslim immigrant community in Garden City, then gunning down survivors as they fled.
The plot had been exposed, and the men arrested, a few weeks before they intended to carry it out. It took place amid a national environment in which far-right militiamen had been vowing a violent resistance to a potential Clinton administration. That resistance was, at least temporarily, mooted by Trump’s victory.
But those same rumblings can now be heard from the very same far-right factions, likewise threatening violence, in response to this month’s takeover of the House of Representatives by Democrats. There is legitimate reason for concern that right-wing terrorist violence will continue and perhaps increase — and that extremists could soon begin targeting politicians in office, especially if Trump singles them out for scorn.
The question of whether Trump’s rhetoric is inspiring acts of political violence now echoes nationally. Acts of violence in Florida and in Pittsburgh in the run-up to the midterm elections have already been inextricably linked to Trump’s hyperbolic language.
According to Chip Berlet, an expert on the populist right, the phenomenon we’re watching unfold is known to sociologists as “scripted violence.” “If a very popular leader who is high up — it doesn’t matter if it’s a political or a movement leader — basically alleges that some group of people is conspiring against the common good, and they harp on that for a long time, it’s only a matter of time before people get killed,” he recently explained.
There’s a long history of this kind of violence, dating from well before the Holocaust and continuing well into recent decades and even the present. In 1990s Rwanda, for example, thousands were massacred when radio talkers targeted communities for lethal violence as part of a tribal/ethnic cleansing campaign. In the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte’s state-condoned death squads follow his cues to target alleged “drug users” for execution, leading to thousands of deaths. Trump has tacitly endorsed the tactic.
His rhetoric at home is part of the same violence for which he is writing the scripts.
“Trump clearly isn’t going to tamp this situation down, and he will likely escalate his anti-immigrant and extremist rhetoric as we move toward 2020,” says Heidi Beirich, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project. “Since the GOP is becoming a bastion of older, white males who are angry, that’s the base they will be moving to turn out. This just follows a trend of more than a decade of increasing numbers of terror plots from the far right. And, at least at this point, it doesn’t seem the feds have a real strategy here, so they will likely be behind the eight ball on these issues as well.”
When confronted by reporters about the connection of his rhetoric to this violence, Trump has denied and deflected, accusing the media of fomenting violence instead for their “fake news”: “You’re creating violence by your questions,” he told reporters after the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, pointing at them. “You are creating — you. And also a lot of the reporters are creating violence by not writing the truth.”
His true believers notwithstanding, the public likely takes a different view: One poll, taken before the mail-bombing attempts and the synagogue shooting, found that a majority of Americans already believe that he enables white supremacists and that many have come to see him as a “legitimizing force” for hate groups.
Critically, those hate groups themselves appear to feel empowered by Trump, in no small part because of his propensity to hesitate to criticize them, embodied by the president’s description of white-nationalist Charlottesville protesters as “very fine people.” Trump’s defenders point to the president’s official disavowals, such as the statement he had issued two days before.
The problem is that not even the hate groups he’s disowning believe him. In chat rooms, message boards and alt-right blogs, the repudiations are interpreted as political necessities and dismissed as meaningless. Alt-right guru Richard Spencer sneered at Trump’s post-Charlottesville disavowal as “kumbaya nonsense,” adding: “Only a dumb person would take those lines seriously.”
Certainly Trump’s far-right devotees, including the white nationalists who have both marched in his name and have used his name while committing hate crimes have taken the example of his bellicose rhetoric and expanded on it in extremists’ inimitable fashion. As they did in the weeks before the 2016 election, militiamen across the nation have referenced violent uprisings and civil war in defense of Trump around the election.
At Gab — the white-nationalist-friendly social media platform allegedly used by Pittsburgh shooting suspect Robert Bowers — speculation about civil war has been part of its site-wide discourse since this summer, as in this since-deleted post:
Two young neo-Nazi activists who associated online with Bowers, Jeffrey and Edward Clark of Washington, allegedly planned to follow in the killer’s footsteps, or at least fantasized about it on Gab. Edward, 23, killed himself shortly after the Pittsburgh massacre, reportedly because news reports indicated Bowers was cooperating with police.
Jeffrey Clark, 30, was arrested Nov. 9 after family members warned authorities of his increasingly violent behavior and rhetoric. The brothers had long fantasized about killing Jews and blacks in a “race war,” police say. On Gab, Jeffrey had praised the Pittsburgh killings as a “dry run for things to come.”
The leader of one “Patriot” group, Chris Hill of the Georgia Security Force III% militia, told reporters before the election, “If they succeed in impeaching President Trump, then we will back President Trump.” Asked how they intended to support him, he answered, “With a use of force if need be.”
Both militiamen and other far-right factions, including white nationalists and street-brawling “Proud Boys,” have been ginning up rhetoric about a “civil war” — depicted, in their telling, as a coming armed struggle between rural conservatives and urban minorities and liberals. Alex Jones has been leading that torchlight parade for several years, but it has spread widely throughout various far factions of the far right.
In addition to white supremacists, “Patriot” militias also have been spurred to action by Trump’s demonizing rhetoric targeting Muslims, the press and liberal Democrats. In recent weeks, they apparently are being spurred, like the Pittsburgh shooter, over right-wing hysteria about the approaching “caravan” of Central American asylum seekers.
A number of self-described militia units have announced to the press their intention to make their way to the Mexico border in the coming weeks, as the refugees draw nearer. “My phone’s been ringing nonstop for the last seven days. You got other militias, and husbands and wives, people coming from Oregon, Indiana. We’ve even got two from Canada,” Shannon McGauley, president of the Texas Minutemen, told The Washington Post.
It’s entirely likely that, with the midterm elections past, the hysteria over the “caravan” will vanish into the same memory hole as the 2014 midterm Ebola panic (similarly born and bred in the media), and with it the militias’ fervor over defending the border from refugees. So far, none have actually shown up, but they have certainly worked themselves into a frenzy over it.
However, given their predilection for following the president’s cues, it is probably only a matter of time before they find fresh targets for their eliminationist anger. Nor will it surprise anyone if these targets are the same new enemies in the Democratic House that Trump faces in Washington after the midterms.
Acts of domestic terrorism such as those in Pittsburgh and elsewhere in recent weeks come amid a rising tide of hate crimes and bigotry-fueled violence generally. Gutting of anti-terror efforts by the administration, recently reported by NBC News, bode ill for efforts to prevent this kind of violence from spreading.
This is especially so when the president himself is throwing rhetorical lighter fluid on his political targets. He, and we, can’t be shocked when someone else provides the match. Indeed, it’s becoming clear that’s exactly the script he intends.