Eager to get home to South Philadelphia before curfew — about an hour's walk — I left Monday's Black Lives Matter protest a few minutes before the police decided to tear-gas the peaceful crowd. The videos of the incident are terrifying — people desperately trying to scramble away from the painful gas, but trapped in the cloud by a fence and a hill that only a few could scramble over. It was a repeat of what is happening in city after city — most notably in Washington, where President Trump had a peaceful crowd gassed because they were getting in the way of a photo op — as police across the nation, evidently inspired by Trump's violent and authoritarian rhetoric, have begun violently crushing nonviolent protesters.
I had been with the protest for several hours, walking miles through the streets of Philadelphia, and can attest that it was a peaceful event. I witnessed one man arrested. But while things got tense and there was some shouting, it was the protesters themselves, not the cops, who took on the task of de-escalating the situation and keeping the crowd moving.
The crowd was peaceful, but perhaps more notably, it was packed with the kinds of people who have been offered up for decades now as hate objects by Fox News and other right-wing propagandists: A racially diverse group of leftist college-ag kids, middle-aged hipsters, aging hippies, and earnest, clean-cut liberals handing out water bottles, all led by a young black woman with a portable speaker calling out the usual protest chants. These are the folks dangled in front of "heartland" America, day after day and night after night, as the "politically correct" villains who are coming to cancel Mom and apple pie and your God-given right to catcall women or tell racist jokes after you've had a couple.
Sticking it to these folks, often reduced to "the libs," was the main reason Republican voters elevated Trump above all other possible Republican candidates in 2016. While the GOP clown-car assemblage of that campaign — Bobby Jindal! Carly Fiorina! Ben Carson! — were, like all Republicans since the era of Nixon and Reagan, happy to engage in coded race-baiting and misogyny disguised as piety, Donald Trump had the special appeal of not even bothering to speak in code. He channeled the base's nakedly racist loathing of Barack Obama and Black Lives Matter and brown-skinned immigrants. He didn't pretend that his misogyny was somehow in the service of Jesus Christ, dumping the charade of the chivalrous anti-choicer by describing women as "dogs" and mocking their looks if they dared question him. He ranted about "winning" and "draining the swamp," and however generously the press chose to interpret those words, his followers understood he was talking about crushing liberals, a poorly-defined group they've been trained through decades of propaganda to despise.
Trump's loutishness was always sociopathic and sadistic, but it's clear that his voters instead chose to view it as thrilling and liberating, a chance to deliver some serious pain to the hated libtards who make them feel guilty for using racial slurs or suggesting that a rape victim "asked for it." Some Trump fans, especially in the charming neo-fascist fringe that became known as the alt-right, immediately understood that Trump really meant it when he hinted that some cleansing right-wing violence directed against his enemies would please him greatly. To be clear, I agree that many of his supporters and apologists in the media honestly believed that the violent chatter coming out of his mouth wasn't serious. It was just, in their reading, shock-jock tactics, an effort to bait liberals and then mock them for their angry reactions. It was, in fact, just an effort to "trigger the liberals."
Now the trigger finger is placed on real weapons, and peaceful protesters (and journalists) are in the crosshairs.
No one should be surprised. Trump's violent racism was entirely sincere, as should have been evident from his actual policy choices. This is the man who rolled back the Obama administration's efforts to fight police brutality and who authorized programs to separate refugee families and put children in cages to punish their parents for the dastardly crime of Immigrating While Not White. The violence was always there, as rhetoric, as potential and as reality. Now it's in our faces even more as any number of American cities, large, small and middle-sized, watch peaceful protesters get tear-gassed and beaten with batons, for no other reason than they belong to that amorphous group deemed "liberals" that Trump and his minions despise.
In my book, "Troll Nation," I argued that conservatism, as an ideology, has lost the intellectual arguments on every issue of substance, from economic theory to the environment to race relations and gender politics. Now all conservatives have left is spite. That's why "owning the liberals" is the main organizing principle of modern conservatism and its why the right eagerly chose Trump, a man devoid of any intelligence or impulses outside of bullying and whining, as its leader. They can't win with rational discourse, I argued, so they've turned to trolling.
But trolling only gets you so far. The prospect that Trump and his supporters would escalate to authoritarian violence was always in the cards. They can't win an argument with logic or facts, but they can pummel your face into you give in, and so here we are.
In Philadelphia on Tuesday morning, prospective Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden stopped by City Hall to speak to a small press gaggle, limited in size due to the quarantine.
He denounced Trump for "using tear gas and flash grenades" to clear a peaceful crowd outside the White House "in order to stage a photo op at a noble church," accusing the president of being more "interested in serving the passions of his base than the needs of the people in his care."
Let's be generous and say that's all true — but it's a dramatic understatement. Trump doesn't even see the majority of Americans who oppose him as people, which is why he literally treated the protesters like vermin to be eliminated in order to clear a backdrop for his photo op.
Outside City Hall, while Biden spoke, downtown Philadelphia was eerily quiet, as much from the coronavirus stay-at-home orders as from the post-protest lull. But a group of National Guard troops were stationed outside, guarding a statue of Frank Rizzo, the notoriously racist mayor and police commissioner of the 1970s. It was almost too on-the-nose, as 2020 symbolism goes: Law enforcement literally protecting a monument to white supremacy while innocent protesters are being gassed, beaten and abused in the streets.
As for MAGA nation, we got an eyeful of that in Philadelphia, too, with a group of baseball bat-wielding jackasses roaming the streets, despite the curfew, in the heavily gentrified neighborhood of Fishtown, clearly looking for anti-racist protesters to beat up under the pretext of preventing looting.
"I'm ready to fuck shit up. You know, I've been looking for a fight for the past six months," a producer for a local radio station heard one of them saying. When they saw the producer filming them, he says, they beat him badly, sending him to the hospital.
Trump's provocations are a central reason for all this violence. But we must also understand that the bat-wielding Red Hats, and people like them, chose him in the first place. He became president by way of an electoral fluke, but not without deep and strong support, and not by accident. Right-wing America increasingly understands it can't win a rational debate and increasingly can't win a fair election. (Only once since 1988 has a Republican presidential nominee won the national popular vote.) This surge of violence, egged on by Trump, is a direct reaction to that. Trumpism is showing its true face, and it's the face of violent authoritarian rule. Our nation's unanswered question is whether people who oppose that will rise up against it, in numbers big enough to overwhelm the efforts of an embittered, hateful minority to enforce their will through cheating, lies and outright violence.