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The Chaos President Has America in Chaos

Five questions for America about our new culture of political violence.
August 31, 2020
The Chaos President Has America in Chaos
(Hannah Yoest / Photos: GettyImages / Shutterstock)

Before he fancied himself the LAW & ORDER president, Donald Trump was the chaos candidate. The guy who didn’t care about norms. The guy who was going to break a bunch of stuff on purpose and even more stuff on accident. They guy who was beloved by his cult of supporters not in spite of his penchant for demagogic incitement, but because of it.

This—right now—is Donald Trump’s America.

So here is Question #1: Are you surprised?

Answer: You shouldn’t be. There is a straight line from this:

President Trump: Don't be too nice

To this:

How George Floyd Was Killed in Police Custody | Visual Investigations

There is another straight line from this:

Donald Trump Says He’d Like to Punch a Protester in the Face

To this:

Protester attacked while leaving Trump rally

To this:

To this:

Teen Kyle Rittenhouse Accused Of Murdering Kenosha Protesters

And while we’re drawing lines, there is a another straight line that runs directly from this:

President Donald Trump On Charlottesville: You Had Very Fine People, On Both Sides | CNBC

To this:

To this:

Trump retweets racist video of supporter shouting ‘white power’

These results are not accidents.

They are not random events.

And Donald Trump is not the man standing in the breach preventing America from descending into anarchy.

He is a pyromaniac campaigning for the office of fire marshal.

He did this. He told us he was going to do it. And for a nontrivial percentage of his supporters, this is why they voted for him.

There is no reason to believe that a second Trump term would be a boon for either law or order.

Question #2: What would happen?

Answer: The same thing that’s already happened.

Chaos reigns.

Question #3: Before 2016, when was the last time you saw pitched battles between armed, opposing political forces in America’s streets?

Did you see it under Barack Obama? Or George W. Bush? Or Bill Clinton? Or George H.W. Bush? Or Ronald Reagan? Or Jimmy Carter?

Answer: By my count, you have to go back at least half a century and even then for the most part you were seeing fights between radicals and agents of the government. In the Jim Crow South, the violence was almost entirely on one side. To find the type of mayhem we now have on the reg, with armed civilians clashing, you have to go back to the union-busting wars of the early 20th century—and even that’s probably not apt, since those were workers pitted against companies.

Yet, once Donald Trump arrived on the national stage, street fighting became a common feature of American politics.

Just look:

Pro-Trump, anti-Trump fights yields 21 arrests

NYPD to pursue charges against 9 members of far-right group Proud Boys for violent brawl

May Day fight between Patriot Prayer and Antifa breaks out in Northeast Portland

Armed militia groups face off against counter-protesters in Georgia

White nationalist rally brings clashes in Charlottesville

This is a thing that happens now, regularly. Street fighting has become a feature of American politics.

Question #4: Do you think this would be happening today if Mitt Romney were president? Or Ted Cruz? Or Mike Pence? Or Scott Walker?

Answer: Of course not. And on the rare occasion it did happen, there would be a president who would have the clarity to tell both the skinheads and anarchists to cut it out rather than embolden them.

When you have armed gangs fighting in the streets, people are going to be killed. The first person murdered because of Donald Trump’s politics was Heather Heyer. Just in the last week, we have added three more bodies.

One of the men currently running for president is trying to lower the nation’s temperature and has said that the violence from all sides—the left, the right, and the police, too—needs to stop.

The other man running for president is cheering on the people on his side who are running toward the sound of guns.

Question #5: With this dynamic happening at the forefront of the presidential vote 64 days from now, and President Trump already saying that the only way he can lose is if the election is “rigged,” do you think we are likely to see more chaos and more violence and more death?

Here I should clarify that I mean, in addition to the 183,000 Americans who have died—so far—from COVID-19.

Answer: Almost certainly. Because we are living in Donald Trump’s America. He made it this way because it was politically helpful to him.

And it still is.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.