UNCERTAINTY IS the watchword of the 2020 election season in the United States.
Even as the Covid-19 pandemic has led to over 220,000+ deaths here, the country has erupted in long-overdue protests against racial injustice and police brutality. The scale and sweep of these protests are hard to exaggerate.
The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) has recorded over 10,000 protests since the murder of an unarmed Black man, George Floyd, by police in late May. They have occurred in all 50 states, including many in small towns where the Black Lives Matter movement had not previously been visible.
Parasitic on the movement for justice, the various factions of the U.S. patriot or militia movement have also surged. Political Research Associates (PRA), working with the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights (IREHR), has documented at least 500 incidents of far-right and paramilitary intrusion into racial justice protest space, marking everything from unorganised heavily-armed angry white mobs to vehicular assaults and the fatal shooting of both protesters and law enforcement officers.
The Civil Rights era in the United State, of course, also saw racial justice efforts met with both ugly resistance and deadly violence, but there is an essential difference: in the 1950s and 1960s, the executive branch of the federal government was not encouraging private armies and vigilantes to oppose racial justice protest – at least not in public.
In the Trump era, we see a President who is not only slow to condemn outright white nationalists but who has encouraged armed paramilitaries as “Great Patriots”. This history and context are important to any understanding of what is all too likely to happen both in the run-up to the November election and in its aftermath.
Any attempt to predict the outcome of the election, given the current volatility, is a fool’s errand. We shape the analysis that follows based on the possibility, not the prediction, that Trump will lose the 2020 election. Or – as is quite likely – the results may be long-delayed, creating an extended period of partisan confrontation on the streets, in the media, and in the courts.
One scenario that could fuel such an extended period of uncertainty would be a combination of election day violence and voter suppression, delay of mail-in ballots exacerbated by the pandemic, by the President’s attacks on the Postal Service, and court-challenges from all sides.
In any case, there is a near-zero likelihood that Trump will concede and leave office quietly and an equally low chance his supporters on the far right, and particularly the paramilitary right, would accept his concession, gracefully or otherwise.
Even if tensions between racial justice protesters, police, and far-right paramilitaries do not escalate between now and the election, a deeply contested or delayed result will catalyse a lot of what is euphemistically called unrest – meaning protests, police repression, counter-protest and an unpredictable amount of violence.
President Trump, based on precedent, can be expected to fan the flames of street-level violence and rumour-mongering amplified by allied media. For months he has been bombarding his followers with the message that any defeat in the 2020 election can only be the result of massive fraud.
“‘The only way we are going to lose this election,” Trump told his followers in mid-August, “is if this election is rigged.” And, of course, President Trump made bogus accusations of widespread voter fraud even after the 2016 elections that put him in the White House.
U.S. paramilitaries, and particularly those on the white nationalist fringe of the movement, should not, however, be considered as Trump’s creatures. At this point, they are in a sort of “call-and-response” relationship with the President, where sometimes he is encouraging them with dog-whistles and racist rhetoric, and sometimes they are attempting to push, pull, and prod him to act on the ultra- nationalist agenda he promised them.
So, even as Trump and his allies across the institutional right attempt to muddy the post-election waters with fraud claims and put pressure on local officials in the states to declare a winner before all votes are counted, far-right and white nationalist forces may take advantage of large protests to foment chaos and instigate violent confrontations.
Social media is also likely to be flooded with conspiracy theories blaming the usual suspects for Trump’s ‘fake loss’: “globalists”, the “deep state cabal”, George Soros, “radical anarchists”, and the Black Lives Matter movement.
In the event of such an extended period of contestation, it is possible that loyalty to Trump will wane on the moderate right, especially if early results suggest a wide margin of defeat. Status quo institutions, including the military and business establishment, which have signalled disapproval of Trump, will be very wary of an extended period of contestation. They may encourage him to step aside and allow for a peaceful transition.
Meanwhile, assorted militia formations, QAnon supporters, open-carry mobs, far-right street fighting groups like the Proud Boys, the pro-policy, pro-Trump militias, and others more loosely sold on the ‘Make American Great Again’ vision will very likely take to the streets in large numbers where they will encounter even larger groups of people protesting for his removal from office.
So the question is not just what the paramilitaries and the hardcore of Trump’s supporters will do, but what will the various security forces most loyal to Trump – country sheriffs, police departments, immigration enforcement officers – do to intervene in the ebb and flow of protest and counter-protest?
Trump and his right-wing echo chamber will encourage the spread of these street mobilisations, depicting supporters as patriots acting in heroic defence of American sovereignty against a treasonous left-wing conspiracy. Acts of violence committed against progressive protestors, such as occurred with the murder of two Black Lives Matter protesters by a militia supporter in Kenosha, Wisconsin in August, will be framed by the Right as patriotic self-defence, while police will likely continue to look the other way, and in some cases will directly collaborate with far-right street actors to suppress protests in opposition to Trump.
Far-right forces that are not aligned with the Trump regime will exploit the civil unrest generated by a contested election to further their extreme goals. White nationalists, who largely see Trump as little better for their long-term movement goals than a Democratic alternative, may seek to amplify street clashes, and exacerbate tensions, in order to destabilise the political space, increase chaos, and accelerate a longed-for “race war”.
They will also likely target protestors with acts of violence. The “Boogaloo Bois”, a militia subset of heavily armed, radical anti-state gun rights activists, may attempt to join protests calling for Trump’s removal. We may see copycat Boogaloo attacks on police officers, mirroring the murder of police officers in Nevada and Oakland in June.
In the months and years following a Trump loss in November, the American far right will find ample opportunities for growth, recruitment, and propagation of their ideology.
Trump supporters will view themselves as a beleaguered, persecuted minority, hungry for revolt against the oppressive forces of liberalism which, in their view, have usurped Trump’s rightful place on the throne. Right-wing interpretations of changing demographics as a form of “white genocide” will draw additional recruits who see their own prospects diminished by the end of a definitive white majority.
Post-Trump, it is a virtual certainty that mainstream right-wing discourse will adopt motifs borrowed from white nationalism, that “real America” and “Western civilisation” is in danger of being undermined and “replaced” by a coalition of immigrants, Black Lives Matter protesters, and “cultural Marxist” elites.
Whatever remains of the ‘moderate’ wing of the Republican Party will likely be scapegoated for Trump’s loss and will be pushed further toward the margins of mainstream conservatism, accelerating the wholesale embrace by the Right of naked xenophobia, exclusionary nationalism, and the most reactionary type of pseudo- populism.
Steven Gardiner (@VetAnthropology) is Assistant Research Director at Political Research Associates, a Massachusetts-based progressive think tank. Ben Lorber (@BenLorber8) is a Research Analyst at Political Research Associates.
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