The political strategy of the Republican National Convention has been evident from the moment it opened. The organizers are determined to stir a backlash vote against every Democrat who has displayed even modest regard for the need to address police violence and systemic racism. There’s a reason for this. President Trump and his partisans are well aware that he cannot win an election based on his record of mismanaging the response to a pandemic and mass unemployment, and of dividing the country against itself with racism and xenophobia. So they are amplifying those divisions in hopes of identifying a narrow, ugly, and exceptionally dangerous path to victory.
The Republican convention’s apocalyptic tone is drawing sharp criticism, especially in the battleground state of Wisconsin, where a gunman killed two demonstrators who were protesting in Kenosha following the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man. The deaths shocked the state and had people complaining that the raw rhetoric long employed by the president and now being amplified by his surrogates is kindling chaos.
Trump opened this week’s convention with an ominous warning that the party’s Democratic rivals “will take your guns away as sure as you’re standing or sitting there. They will take your guns away, either that or obliterate the Second Amendment, the right to bear arms. You have the right to bear arms, especially when you look at a Portland and you see how weak those Democrats are. The governor, the mayor, how pathetic, they let them riot every night. We’re saying, let us come in and solve your problem.”
It was on Monday that Trump was in Charlotte, N.C., spinning his dark tale of Democratic cities overrun by riotous mobs.
On Tuesday night, in the historically Democratic city of Kenosha, a heavily armed 17-year-old white man was seen firing multiple rounds at demonstrators who had joined the third night of protests. Those protests began Sunday evening after videos circulated showing a police officer grabbing Blake by his T-shirt and repeatedly shooting him in the back. When the shooting stopped on Tuesday night, two demonstrators were dead and one more was severely wounded.
The alleged shooter identified with the so-called “militias” that appeared on the streets of Kenosha as the demonstrations grew in intensity. Kenosha County Sheriff David Beth told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that these armed men were “like a vigilante group.” Only now are many Americans learning about the character of these militias, and about the Illinois youth who has been charged with first-degree intentional homicide. According to a BuzzFeed report published Wednesday:
The law enforcement–obsessed 17-year-old who was charged with shooting and killing two people and injuring another in Kenosha, Wisconsin, during protests for Jacob Blake appeared in the front row at a Donald Trump rally in January. Kyle Howard Rittenhouse’s social media presence is filled with him posing with weapons, posting “Blue Lives Matter,” and supporting Trump for president. Footage from the Des Moines, Iowa, rally on January 30 shows Rittenhouse feet away from the president, in the front row, to the left of the podium. He posted a TikTok video from the event.
The news of Tuesday night’s shootings led Democrats to speak in stark terms. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi complained on Wednesday about “the encouragement that the president…gives to vigilantes coming in to make matters worse.” Wisconsin Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes called out Trump’s rhetoric and “the message coming from the top about how to handle people who are…standing up against racial injustice in this country.” And they were not alone in noticing. Philip Bump of The Washington Post observed, as the convention’s third night concluded:
If Rittenhouse shot those two people dead, there was some spur for him to do so that simply doesn’t exist for most other people. It’s facile to assume that we can identify that spur as the rhetoric offered by President Trump and his reelection campaign. But it’s impossible not to notice how that rhetoric echoes in what appears to have happened in Kenosha.
The sharpest criticism came from Democratic Party of Wisconsin chair Ben Wikler, who said, “Trump and his allies have fearmongered and stoked hate against those standing in opposition to racism and injustice, and conflated peaceful protests with rioters. Trump egged on armed right-wing militias through calls to ‘liberate’ states during stay-at-home orders; Trump’s Republican National Convention has speakers spreading conspiracy theories about the destruction of the suburbs.”
Wikler was referring to a convention appearance Monday by Mark and Patricia McCloskey, the St. Louis couple who in June pointed a semiautomatic rifle and a semiautomatic handgun at participants in a Black Lives Matter march that was passing their mansion in a wealthy neighborhood. “America is such a great country that you not only have the right to own a gun and use it to defend yourself, but thousands of Americans will offer you free advice on how to use it. At least that’s what we experienced,” Mrs. McCloskey chirped. Mr. McCloskey jumped in to say, “It seems as if Democrats no longer view the government’s job as protecting honest citizens from criminals, but rather protecting criminals from honest citizens.” Then Mrs. McCloskey was back to complain that Democrats “are not satisfied with spreading the chaos and violence into our communities. They want to abolish the suburbs altogether.”
The McCloskeys have not been outliers on the convention stage. They have joined a chorus of voices that stoked fears for political purposes.
“Look at what’s happening in American cities, cities all run by Democrats,” Representative Jim Jordan announced in a wide-eyed virtual speech on the convention’s opening night. “Crime, violence, and mob rule. Democrats refuse to denounce the mob, and the response to the chaos, defund the police, defund border patrol, and defund our military,” ranted the Ohioan. “And while they’re doing all this, they’re also trying to take away your guns. Look at the positions they’ve taken in the past few months. Democrats won’t let you go to church, but they’ll let you protest. Democrats won’t let you go to work, but they’ll let you riot. And Democrats won’t let you go to school, but they’ll let you go loot.”
Jordan is always over the top, as is Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida, who griped on Monday that the opposition would “disarm you, empty the prisons, lock you in your house and invite MS-13 to live next door.” But the president was also stoking the fire, as were the members of his family whose names filled the speaking schedule. And Wednesday night’s session closed with Vice President Mike Pence warning, “The hard truth is, you won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America.”
Republicans will say that all this talk about “pathetic” governors and mayors who “let them riot every night” is standard convention fare. Like all practitioners of backlash politics, they’ll refuse to admit that campaign strategies grounded in fear and loathing have in the past torn countries apart—and could do so again.
But after a harrowing few days in Wisconsin, Wikler was warning the president and his minions, “This is irresponsible rhetoric that has consequences.”