The message of the 2020 Republican National Convention was dark: the radical left is taking over America; to defeat them, Trump has to be re-elected, and right-wingers need to arm themselves to fight back. Before the conference could end, a teenage Trump fan opened fire at a Black Lives Matter protest with a semi-automatic rifle, leaving two protesters dead and another seriously wounded.
To present themselves as a force of stability that can end the purported “chaos” of Black Lives Matter demonstrations, the Republicans are bringing far-right violence into the mainstream, promoting it as the necessary defence against what they paint as an insurgent left.
The night before the shooting, Mark and Patricia McCloskey spoke at the convention. The couple’s only claim to fame is being in a viral video in which they point guns at Black Lives Matter protesters from their Missouri mansion. That the McCloskeys were invited to the convention at all made a clear statement: right-wing whites are right to take up arms against BLM.
From a darkened room reminiscent of Get Out’s “Sunken Place”, Patricia McCloskey warned viewers that Black Lives Matter protesters could take over their white, middle-class suburbs: “What you saw happen to us could just as easily happen to any of you who are watching from quiet neighbourhoods around our country”. She made a barely cloaked call for conservatives to arm themselves: “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”.
The following night, Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old aspiring cop, walked out of a Black Lives Matter protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, carrying a semi-automatic rifle. “I just killed someone”, he says in a video of the moment captured by phone. According to witnesses and footage, police let Rittenhouse walk away without arresting him, his firearm still hanging on his shoulder, while witnesses shouted that he had shot someone.
Just days after the shooting, Fox News presenter Tucker Carlson defended Rittenhouse, using arguments identical to those made throughout the Republican Convention: if the Democrats continue to tolerate or cultivate Black Lives Matter, reactionary violence will be the inevitable result. “Kenosha has devolved into anarchy”, Carlson said, “because the authorities in charge of the city abandoned it ... So are we really surprised that looting and arson accelerated to murder? How shocked are we that 17-year-olds with rifles decided they had to maintain order when no one else would?” Carlson’s show is the highest rating cable news program. An audience of around 4.5 million viewers heard his endorsement of murder.
When white nationalists took to the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, and killed activist Heather Heyer in 2017, some were shocked at the confidence and size of the organised far right. At that time, Trump equivocated, saying there were “very fine people” on both sides of the fascist demonstration and the anti-racist counter-demonstration. This was too much for many Republicans, who, at least publicly, distanced themselves from the president. But now that the Black Lives Matter movement has become a focal point for the Republican electoral strategy, the party seems committed to normalising the politics of Charlottesville.
The convention brought together conservative Republican officials and the fringe elements. Former Tea Party insurgents, now integrated into the Republican establishment, amplified the narrative presented by the McCloskeys: Black Lives Matter represents a rising tide of chaos and socialism that must be resisted at all costs. “To those of you who want to stand up and fight the socialists poisoning our schools and burning our cities”, said Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, “join me in supporting President Trump”.
In his closing speech, Vice President Mike Pence called the Biden campaign a “Trojan horse for the radical left”. The turmoil created by the pandemic, and Trump’s handling of it, mean that the Republicans need to work to win over sections of the white middle class being drawn to Biden in a search for stability. Presenting the Democrats as the face of chaos and creating the impression that there is a need for a stable and authoritarian hand to steady the ship, could keep them onside.
The political strategy has deadly consequences. It has given official approval and a mass audience to the far right’s apocalyptic sense that Black Lives Matter represents social disintegration. It has strengthened the idea that direct action by armed right-wingers may be necessary to wipe out the Black Lives Matter movement.
In the days before the Kenosha shooting, right-wing militias patrolled the streets, threatening protesters. Footage shows local police thanking them for their presence and throwing them water bottles. That local law enforcement can work so comfortably with armed fascist gangs, or that a prominent media commentator can sympathise with a right-wing murderer, is a testament to the interaction between mainstream conservatism and extreme reactionary violence.
The health crisis has killed more than 180,000 people in the United States. The country is plunging further into the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. The Republican establishment is now encouraging its right-wing audience to accept and celebrate armed “resistance” to the struggle for racial justice. The convention, and the tragic shooting that accompanied it, are a warning of things to come.