America Under Fire

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

The surge into Portland of truckloads of vigilante Trump supporters who fired paint balls and pepper spray into protesters seeking racial justice has the potential of spreading to other cities as anything but a “well regulated militia.”

There is little doubt President Donald Trump is egging on his civilian troops, shouting encouragement to them with a capitalized tweet applauding them as “GREAT PATRIOTS.” So much for his law and order mantra, a desperate strategy to capture the election.

But his focus on the continuing unrest surely is calculated to try to distract voters from his disastrous performance in dealing with COVID-19, which probably added to the death toll, now more than 183,000 with more than six million people infected.

His opponent, Democrat Joe Biden, Jr., homed in on that during a speech in Pittsburgh, directing his comments directly at Trump, focusing on his mishandling of the coronavirus: “Do you know what people are afraid of in America? They’re afraid they’re going to get COVID. They’re afraid they’re going to get sick and die. And that is no small part because of you.”

On Tuesday, Trump ventured into Kenosha, Wis., ignoring pleas by the governor and mayor to stay away for fear his presence would incite more violence of the type in which two people were killed. He dismissed a question about racism, focusing instead on his well-worn condemnation of “anarchists,” “looters,” “rioters and you have all types, you have agitators . . .”

In Portland, the truck cavalcade of intimidation, mostly pickups flying big American flags or some dyed blue to symbolize support for police, served only to incite violence among largely peaceful demonstrators. One Trump backer, Aaron J. Danielson, 39, was shot dead, assailant initially unknown.

The appearance of the civilian caravan composed of men looking for a fight in hundreds of trucks lined up single file injected a new element of flammability in ongoing largely peaceful demonstrations by Black Lives Matter and others in favor of racial equality following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis May 25. The ongoing civil unrest coincides with a political election campaign that Trump has inflamed with fiery rhetoric aimed at Biden and “radical Democrats” who he blames for street violence.

That the president appears not unhappy with the civil unrest because it serves his political purposes was acknowledged by none other than his outgoing senior adviser, Kellyanne Conway, whom Biden quoted as saying that “the more chaos and anarchy and vandalism and violence reigns, the better it is for the very clear choice on who’s best on public safety and law and order.”

“He’s rooting for chaos and violence,” Biden said.

The takeaway from that is the more violence that emerges from those tailgating the Black Lives Matter demonstrators as cover for looting, attacking police and fighting with Trump supporters the more it plays into the president’s imaginary scenario that the street battles are instigated by Biden supporters.

“Do you seriously wonder, Mr. President, why this is the first time in decades that America has seen this level of violence?” Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, a Democrat, asked. “It’s you who have created the hate and the division.”

Trump, who is known to revel in chaos and confrontation, shot back an threat via tweet: “He would like to blame me and the Federal Government for going in, but he hasn’t seen anything yet.”

The verbal and tweeted abuse has spurred his supporters to defend his presidency. But not a word about the violence perpetrated by those supporters, the worst of which was the shooting deaths in Kenosha, allegedly by Kyle Rittenhouse of a town in Illinois 21 miles away.

Trump, when asked, declined to denounce the shooting and appeared to defend Rittenhouse’s actions because the teen reportedly was chased after he shot one man. He alluded to self-defense. The boy has been charged with murder.

“. . . He was in very big trouble,” the president said. “He would have been – you probably would’ve been killed,” Trump said.

Biden, in an unusual series of back and forth with Trump following a long period of silence when he confined himself to his Delaware home during the worst of the coronavirus, jumped on that with an acrimonious statement.

“. . . The president declined to rebuke violence,” he said. “He wouldn’t even repudiate one of his supporters who is charged with murder because of his attacks on others. He is too weak, too scared of the hatred he has stirred to put an end to it.

Anyone with a touch of sanity would doubt whether this macho display of righteous patriotism by Trump’s do-it-yourself private army would sway voters to re-elect the president. What people want is a calming of tension, not provocations to further violence and unrest. And polls say most Americans support demonstrations for racial justice.

That “well regulated militia,” of course, is rooted in the Second Amendment to the Constitution, adopted Dec. 15, 1791 along with nine other articles in the Bill of Rights. It reads, in full: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

But isn’t today’s well-regulated militia the United States armed forces?

Richard C. Gross, who covered war and peace in the Middle East and was foreign editor of United Press International, served as the opinion page editor of The Baltimore Sun.