This ends with body bags. You know it, I know it, Trump knows it, his complicit political sycophants know it, and the bug-eyed hyperventilating racists at his rallies know it.
Whether bombs, bullets, or brawls, violence and the threat of violence is an essential feature when authoritarians seize control. Trump and his supporters knew his incendiary rhetoric would lead to a slowly escalating cycle of terror. It’s what they hoped for.
Whether organized fascism in Europe or strong-man authoritarian cults of personality in Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa, seizing power either starts with a military coup or an election that propels the authoritarian to power. That’s followed by defining and demonizing an enemy – Jews to the Nazis, Bosnians to the Serb nationalists, non-white people to Trump. Then come the direct threats to political and social opponents. Finally, with a rigged election or two to cement legitimacy, the threats turn to actual violence.
In less than two years, we’ve already blown by most of those mileposts. Trump’s attacks on black figures like Colin Kaepernick and U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, his flamethrower attacks on non-white immigrants, and his embrace of white nationalism defined the tribe (white conservative Christians and those who play them on the campaign trail) and the enemy (everybody else).
Then came his enemies list, quickly morphing into a hit list. The targets of the mailed bombs have repeatedly been attacked by Trump, by name. CNN searched the site FactBase, and found Trump has attacked CNN on Twitter 63 times since becoming president and has called the media “the enemy of the people” 55 times in speeches. Trump has tweeted attacks on Hillary Clinton 109 times since Inauguration Day, and Obama 137 times.
Maxine Waters has been savaged by Trump 73 times in tweets, speeches, and press releases, and former CIA Director John Brennan 30 times. Trump has attacked former Attorney General Eric Holder, liberal philanthropist George Soros, and anti-Trump actor Robert DeNiro repeatedly. And all of them received explosive devices in the mail.
Authoritarians and their supporters then often pull a sleight of hand, warning their enemies while denying they had anything to do with attempted or actual violence. The day after the bombs were discovered, Trump blasted out a tweet condemning the mainstream media and “fake news” that ended with these words: “Mainstream Media must clean up its act, FAST!” Given Trump’s experience with the Mob, it makes sense he sent out a threat along the order of “Nice country you got here. It’d be a shame if something happened to it.”
But while Trump threatened more trouble for any media outlet that criticized him, his supporters shifted into overdrive trying to blame the explosives on liberals. Missouri state Representative Kathie Conway, who represents part of rapidly growing white-flight St. Charles County west of St. Louis, posted on Facebook: “Gosh, I don’t mean to be skeptical, but could those packages sent to the Clintons and Obamas be a cooked up scheme to make conservatives look deranged?”
That theme, which does manage to make conservatives look more than mildly deranged, has been picked up by right-wing gasbags from Rush Limbaugh to Lou Dobbs. Fox News tried to tamp down the danger by ordering its staff to refer to explosives laced with shrapnel and attached to timers as “packages” not bombs.
While Trump threatened the media, and his acolytes tried to sow confusion about what exactly the truth is, conservatives across the country carried on with another part of the pattern – controlling elections – so that the voting in 10 days won’t be a complete repudiation of Trump’s reign. In Georgia, Secretary of State Brian Kemp – running for governor against a black female Democrat, Stacey Abrams – was ordered by a federal court to stop tossing out absentee ballots where the signature didn’t exactly match the one on file. Kemp appealed, hoping to get away with the absentee disenfranchisement by delaying any ruling until after the election.
Meanwhile, the NAACP discovered that in at least two Georgia counties, votes cast for the Democrat Abrams on touch-screen voting machines registered the votes instead for the Republican Kemp. In Charlotte, North Carolina, an armed white man confronted a black campaign volunteer during early voting. Students at historically black Prairie View A&M University sued Waller County, Texas for refusing to allow them to vote. The NAACP sued and forced Shelby County, Tennessee to send notices to voters whose registrations had been rejected because of incomplete forms. In 60-percent Hispanic Dodge City, Kansas, white election officials moved the city’s only polling place, then sent new registrants a form instructing them to vote at the old, closed polling place.
So far, then, we have a contested election that brought the oligarch to power, the oligarch defining an ethnic and social enemy, specific threats by name against that enemy, threats turning into action, and attempts to rig a follow-up election in the oligarch’s favor. The checklist is just about complete. And while all of that has been going on, the oligarch has corrupted his country’s highest court, compromised national law enforcement, and enriched himself in the process.
In a speech in August to white evangelical Christians at the White House, Trump warned of violence if Democrats take the House or Senate in the midterms. “They will overturn everything we’ve done, and they will do it quickly and violently. And violently,” Trump said. “There is violence. When you look at Antifa, these are violent people.”
So in case voter suppression fails, Trump has now set the stage for defending against violence – not violence from right-wing pro-Trump domestic terrorists, but from Democrats who might want to subpoena Trump’s tax returns or examine impeachment.
There is only one step left in the authoritarian’s handbook: actual violence that may very well end up killing some of Trump’s opponents. Heather Heyer, run down by a white supremacist in Charlottesville last year, was the first.
Whether she will be the last depends on how long Trump remains in power.
Charles Jaco is a journalist, author, and activist. Follow him on Twitter at @charlesjaco1.