OP-ED: Trump is our first pro-vigilante president. Now stop and think about what that means
President Donald Trump took his discord-and-turmoil tour to Kenosha, Wisconsin, on Tuesday, re-roiling a town that had calmed itself after a week of unrest.
Trump did not meet with the family of Jacob Blake, the Black man who was shot by a police officer seven times in the back, a stomach-turning act that the president likened to a golfer who misses a short putt.
By contrast, he offered supportive comments about Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old who drove to Kenosha from Illinois with an AR-15 to join the fray and is accused of shooting three protesters, killing two. Rittenhouse has been charged with first-degree murder, but Trump made the public case that he was acting in self-defense.
Trump, along with Attorney General Bill Barr, rolled into Kenosha — over the objections of the city’s mayor and Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, who told the president that “I am concerned your presence will only hinder our healing.”
Trump’s claim to being a law and order president would be risible were it not tragic. His presidency represents the antithesis of law and order. No president has been less respectful of law, both specific legislative enactments and the very concept of the rule of law, not of men.
Is it any wonder that chaos follows him like a bridal train? This is his governing strategy. But the aberration of his presidency goes much deeper than his phony lip service to law and order.
As his comments about Rittenhouse demonstrate, Trump encourages his supporters to take the law into their own hands. It serves his purposes to have them ignite a melee with Black Lives Matter protesters. Trump’s only campaign tactic left at this point, given the COVID-19 catastrophe, is to play out the lie that murderous left-wing mobs are amassing at the gates and only he can stop them.
He is our first pro-vigilante president.
Consider his many acts going back to the start of his term, beginning with his infamous reaction — “you also had very fine people on both sides” — after a car plowed into a group of counterprotesters at a huge white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Or his pardons of the Hammonds, who were convicted of setting fire to federal land, the case that inspired the Bundy family to lead an armed standoff against the federal government at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. Or his commentary on the protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis — “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
Or on Sunday, when he praised hundreds of supporters — he tweeted that they were “GREAT PATRIOTS” — who invaded Portland, Oregon, in a terrifying caravan and shot paintballs and chemical irritants at protesters from the back of their trucks.
Rittenhouse has already become a hero for far-right websites frequented by Trump supporters, one of whom, in a tweet that Trump “liked,” called the accused murderer “a good example of why I decided to vote for Trump.”
Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) was right on the money when he said Trump “sees this violence, and his ability to agitate more of it, as useful to this campaign. What it does to the country, the loss of life, he doesn’t care.”
Trump’s embrace of vigilantism fits very well with his distinctly racist rhetoric. His desperate fiction is that his supporters, nearly all white, are peace-loving patriots, whereas the Black and brown victims of racism and police attacks are, in his dog-whistle descriptions, anarchists, rioters and criminals.
The facts are exactly to the contrary. A review of politically motivated attacks in the last 25 years by the Center for Strategic and International Studies determined that there were more than five times as many persons killed by right-wing violence as by left-wing violence. The anti-fascist movement antifa was linked to exactly one death over that period, and the person who died was the attacker.
Trump’s vigilantism is an astonishing full frontal attack on the state’s authority, as manifested in the law — which he is supposed to defend as the head of this administration. This fits nowhere within any identifiable strains of American political thought, such as conservatism or even a states’ rights ideology.
Instead, Trump’s ethos rejects the most basic tenet of civil society, namely the state’s monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. For political philosophers from Hobbes forward, this principle is foundational to ordered civilization.
There really is no precedent for Trump’s despicable stratagem among American presidents. To find one, we would have to consult the playbook of authoritarian thugs such as Viktor Orban or Vladimir Putin: Incite violence, including at the hands of your brown shirt faithful, blame it on the other (refugees, Jews, Crimean nationalists) and use it to justify strong-arm tactics.
For the president to promote outlaw tactics is beyond perverse. It is a direct assault on democratic rule. If Trump can succeed in winning reelection on these terms, we will lose, and may never reclaim, our status as a democracy governed by law.
— Harry Litman is a former U.S. attorney and the host of the podcast “Talking Feds.”