Not long after Donald Trump finished his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse used his AR-15 rifle to shoot at demonstrators who had gathered for a Black Lives Matter protest of the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Rittenhouse, who had been with a right-wing militia that evening, killed to social justice activists and injured a third. Four days later on August 29, right- wing activist Aaron Danielson was shot and killed in Portland, Oregon after a pro-Trump car caravan drove into the city center triggering clashes with progressive activists.
Right-wing and white supremacist militia groups have been active in the U.S. for decades, reaching a peak of activity during the 1990s, around the time of the April 19, 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. That domestic terrorist attack carried out by Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols against the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, killed 168 men, women and children – and injured more than 680.
As the U.S. prepares for this November’s presidential election amid the worst health crisis in over 100 years and an economic crash, tensions are running high. What’s unique and dangerous in this volatile moment is that unlike any other president in modern U.S. history, Trump is praising and encouraging militia groups and vigilantes who have confronted and at times attacked Black Lives Matter and other progressive activists, inviting more violence. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Christopher Vials, director of American Studies at the University of Connecticut at Storrs, and co-editor of the book, The U.S. Antifascism Reader, who examines the disturbing historic analogues of street violence that accompanied the rise of authoritarian and fascist leaders of the past.
CHRISTOPHER VIALS: The bottom line is yes, we should be worried, right? Because you know, someone was here on the show that was present during the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and ’60s. They would probably tell you that this kind of violence against black protesters is nothing new. In fact, it’s all, you know, black protest has always been met by vicious violence in this country. And that doesn’t necessarily mean we’ve gone over to fascism. But what is new is, as you mentioned, that you have a president that’s egging on militia groups directly, which is not something you had during say for, you know, the Eisenhower or the Kennedy or the Johnson administrations when civil rights was kind of going through its major phases. Even when you had Nixon who took a law and order stands, he wasn’t actively egging on militias.
And so that is a dangerous development in and of itself. I’ve seen the analogy before and I think this is both telling and not telling, or instructive and not instructive — is the analogy to Weimar Germany. In other words, Germany and the interwar period when the left and the right were battling it out on the streets, sometimes bloodily with increasing escalation. And, one of the differences I will say between Weimar Germany and the United States now was that those bloody clashes between left and right, right before Hitler’s taking power — those bloody clashes were happening virtually every weekend in most major cities across the country. So right now we’re still seeing it at flashpoints. We’re seeing it at Portland; we’re seeing it at Kenosha. So we’re not seeing the kind of scale of political violence on the streets that you saw right before Hitler took power or before there was you know, a fascist takeover.
And to be honest, we could talk about Trump and fascism in a moment. But how analogous is that situation? What is dangerous and what I have seen from this perspective of my research that is worrying and that does echo history, that does echo the past is this dynamic where right-wingers will just kind of come into the territory of what they see as the left and just raise hell. So, for example, in Portland, you have this armada of pickup trucks with guys coming in with guns, paint guns and real guns just barreling into Portland, Oregon, because only because they know it’s a stronghold of people on the left, right? And, in that you see that kind of behavior echoed over and over — the stormtroopers, for example, insisted on marching in working class neighborhoods of Berlin and Hamburg that were known to be kind of socialist neighborhoods or communist neighborhoods. The Klan in the 1920s took pride in itself on marching through immigrant neighborhoods of the people they were targeting, whether it was Eastern European immigrants or Italian immigrants.
So that is a hallmark of kind of fascist movements — of taking it to “them,” taking it to “their” strongholds with “your” guns, marching through “their” territory, “their” turf, “their” neighborhood. Though the left has its own pathologies to be sure — but that’s not something you see as much on the left ,where you’re going to get a lot of leftists going into some small town in Kansas just because people vote for Trump there and with guns, right? Just to scare people and cause a ruckus. So that behavior, I think is really that provocative behavior trying to trigger a fight, deliberately trigger something in the local population — is a direct echo of the past that I do see.
SCOTT HARRIS: Donald Trump has signaled that he may not abide by the election results. There’s a growing concern around the country that if he should lose the election, that he’ll claim that the election was rigged, full of fraudulent ballots and such. What is the potential for violence if Trump does call out his supporters and resist the mandate of the people for him to exit the White House?
CHRISTOPHER VIALS: Well, that’s a very good question. It’s a very real question and really what this is going to come down to. And it’s kind of a really super sad and scary that we’re even having to talk like this is, “Will the police and if need be, the military — can they be counted on to enforce the laws?” You know, and I think probably so, but I think if they actually do steal the election, it’ll probably be through lawyers and things.
But, I think something to keep in mind too, is if Trump loses and if he doesn’t, you know, somehow steal the election, the danger that he’s created with fomenting all of this white nationalist violence, that’s not going to go away. And in fact, you know, if he loses again — I’m not saying he will — but if he does, I think we’re going to see a lot of domestic terrorism unfortunately for a long time to come as a result of the kind of the hatred that he has created in American politics in life.