There are worrying signs that the US is heading towards a schism.
Trump is reportedly talking about imposing martial law, there are violent protests in the streets, and public officials are being threatened with violence.
Trump is fueling this break with inflamed rhetoric and a culture of untruths.
As the left becomes more active in protest, Trump continues to contest the result of the election, and the inauguration looms these conflicts seem to be only the beginning.
Dana R. Fisher is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland.
This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
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Just yesterday, Americans learned from reports that the president is considering declaring martial law to hold onto power. The idea that a sitting president could possibly invoke the Insurrection Act to stop the winner of the 2020 election from assuming the presidency comes a mere seven days after protests in DC devolved into violent conflicts instigated, in large part, by the Proud Boys. As more local elected officials are threatened for supporting efforts to limit the spread of COVID-19 and conspiracy theories fuel violent conflict that threaten our democracy, there is increasing evidence that America is drifting towards a violent schism. Escalating tensionsThe slippery slope that led to our hyper-polarized tribal politics began well before the 2016 election. But there’s no doubt that the election of Donald Trump and his four years in office stoked the flames of partisanship. There are three interrelated factors playing into the heightened tensions and increased violence of the current moment.
First, the president and his allies have coaxed hate out of the dark corners of society where it had been relegated by social norms. Second, the Trump administration has cultivated a culture of untruths and alternative facts. And third, misinformed Americans have been emboldened to challenge the legitimacy of the US government and take up arms in the streets. What happens when these smaller violent groups collide head on with the much larger American Resistance that has grown over the past four years?Given the way he ran his 2016 campaign, no one should have been surprised that President Trump has spent his time in office publicly engaging in hate speech with personal attacks against women, people of color, elected officials, and anyone who disagreed with him. Thanks to social media, this information has been transmitted in an unfiltered way to his followers.While previous leaders from both political parties have stood firm against hate, condemning acts of violence, the president has refused to censure such acts or even white supremacism generally. Back in Summer 2017, after peaceful counter protesters of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia were attacked, the President responded to the violence with his famous statement noting that “you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.”
More recently at the presidential debate in September, when asked to condemn white supremacy, the president responded by calling out the Proud Boys by name, encouraging them and enabling xenophobia. In his own words: “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by. But I’ll tell you what: Somebody’s got to do something about antifa and the left.” These efforts to empower hate have been bolstered by Trump and his team’s work to promote false narratives. As early as 2013, Donald Trump was publicly challenging the scientific consensus around climate change and calling it a hoax. Since then, challenging science and fact has been a hallmark of the Trump presidency. Two days after Trump’s inauguration, Kellyanne Conway first used the term “alternative facts” to support the administration’s false claims about the number of people who participated in the inauguration. At the time, no one could have foreseen that alternative facts would empower the President to challenge facts of all sorts: including the science of a pandemic that has now killed over 300,000 Americans.In a surprise to no one, Trump and his allies are now challenging the outcome of the 2020 election. We have reached the point where anyone can feel legitimate when contradicting a true and verified statement on the basis of simple disagreement.
Four years of watching the president demolish the norms of political and civil discourse in our country has taken its toll; It has led us to this moment where civil unrest is becoming commonplace. Peaceful protest and fomented angerIn contrast to the claims by the president, though, the unrest has not been driven by left-wing activists or the vague and undefined “Antifa.” I have been studying protests on the left throughout the four years of the Trump Administration. Although some of the activism has involved civil disobedience and destruction of property, one of the most notable characteristics of this period in America’s history is the emergence of the anti-Trump Resistance movement, which engaged in numerous large-scale peaceful demonstrations over this prolonged period. As I document in my book “American Resistance,” the movement channeled outrage against the President and his policies into collective action in the streets and efforts around candidates for the 2018 midterm elections.
More recently, protests broke out in response to the murder of George Floyd. Americans took to the streets around the US to call for an end to systemic racism after months of staying inside to avoid the pandemic. Despite some clashes with police and law enforcement, these unprecedented and sustained protests were overwhelmingly peaceful. There are clear differences in who has participated in these more recent protests. These more recent protests have been populated by a younger and more racially diverse group of predominantly left-leaning Americans. Like those who turned out to the big demonstrations during the first two years of the Trump presidency, they have been mobilized to take advantage of their First Amendment rights to peaceful assembly. In stark contrast, just over a week ago, Americans watched in horror as Trump supporters were joined by Proud Boys who fought with counter protesters in the nation’s capital. Although my research shows that protesters on the left have been overwhelmingly peaceful and have restrained themselves from what scholars have called more insurgent tactics over the past four years, I have also found that many of them are prepared to fight back against hate.With the inauguration coming in five weeks and rumors of more efforts to challenge the transition of power, there is no doubt that opening the doors to hate and violence while promoting false narratives have led us to the current moment where peaceful protesters are not safe to march in the streets of the US without fear of being threatened or attacked. In other words, this may be only the beginning.