President Trump’s fingerprints are all over the wave of deadly escalation that has gripped cities already coping with unrest. From Portland to Kenosha, Wisconsin, the White House has come to a cynical conclusion: violence in the streets is good for Trump’s reelection odds, allowing him to cast Democrat-governed cities as incubators of chaos and harbingers of what a Biden victory would bring. Whether this is true remains unsettled; that these clashes are happening while Trump himself is president would seem to pose a messaging dilemma for the campaign. But the perverse incentive structure induced by his campaign’s calculation means that there’s little reason to actually attempt to ease tensions. Now, the president plans to travel to Kenosha on Tuesday, despite the recent killings committed by one of his supporters there and a body of evidence that his politicization of the clashes makes matters more contentious on the ground, not less.
On August 25, 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse traveled to Kenosha from his home in Antioch, Illinois, and shot three people, killing two. The precise circumstances surrounding the shootings are still being determined, but Rittenhouse appears to have joined a loose agglomeration of armed militia members who took it on themselves to patrol the streets that night — the third following the August 23 shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black local, by Kenosha police. Video footage and eyewitness accounts suggest that Rittenhouse shot one protester and then two more who tried to subdue him. His presence had been welcomed by local law enforcement: officers were seen handing Rittenhouse and other militia members bottles of water and thanking them for their presence shortly before the teenager opened fire. Police Chief Daniel Miskinis blamed the protesters’ deaths on their disregard for his curfew, an assertion he later walked back.
But perhaps the most remarkable response came from conservative media and the president himself, at whose January 30 Des Moines rally Rittenhouse was spotted. Fox News’ Tucker Carlson remarked, “How shocked are we that 17-year-olds with rifles decided they had to maintain order when no one else would?” On August 28, Trump liked a tweet thread by journalist Tim Pool lamenting the unrest in Wisconsin and subsequent demonization of Rittenhouse — ”[Some] kid from a nearby town … decides to go up and protect businesses and offer medical support o [sic] people, even the rioters. He was threatened and shot at. Now the media is saying … the extremists are the good guys” — and citing them as reasons why he voted for Trump.
These responses preceded an intense social media blitz from the president this weekend against the mayor of Portland, Ted Wheeler. “Portland is a mess, and it has been for many years,” Trump added on Monday morning. “If this joke of a mayor doesn’t clean it up, we will go in and do it for them!” In fact, the previous iteration of this threat is why Portland’s protests have intensified. After George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police in May, Portland joined hundreds of other American cities in hosting demonstrations, which stretched into the weeks that followed. Though the protests had mellowed by July, Trump saw his polling numbers in a tailspin and “seized a chance to appear as a field general in a wider American cultural conflict,” according to the Washington Post. He deployed fatigue-clad federal agents to the city to snatch protesters off the streets and blanket them with teargas, against the stated wishes of local officials, who were already doing much of the same using local police. The president’s incursion had a greater escalating effect, though, causing the protests to explode in size, expand to other cities, and prompt renewed clashes between police and dissidents, which remain ongoing. It culminated in a deadly shootout during a pro-Trump rally on Saturday. A caravan of trucks waving flags bearing the president’s name, the protofascist “thin blue line” banner, and, in at least once instance, the navy jack that has become today’s most recognizable Confederate emblem, plowed through the city firing paintball pellets at protesters. Real gunfire erupted and a member of Patriot Prayer, a far-right group characterized by its brutal extremism and participation in street brawls, was killed. Trump once again rationalized the violence. “The big backlash going on in Portland cannot be unexpected after 95 days of watching and incompetent Mayor admit that he has no idea what he is doing,” he tweeted on August 30, alongside a video of his supporters shooting pellets at protesters.
Trump’s provocations in Oregon lend insight into his grand plan, paired with testimony from the White House officials who spoke to the Post about his motives. One thing is clear: the president believes it is in his interest not to quell the unrest, but to blame it on Democratic officials and Joe Biden, who does not hold elected office, while encouraging his supporters to self-deputize in order to fight them. This has not only led him to shrug his shoulders at vigilante violence against protesters, and bemoan the withering response to those who employ it, but encouraged him to transform murder scenes into campaign stops knowing that his presence will likely cause more unrest, as it did in Portland. This is part of why officials in Kenosha and Madison have implored Trump to “reconsider” his scheduled visit. “I don’t know how, given any of the previous statements that the president made, that he intends to come here to be helpful, and we absolutely don’t need that right now,” Wisconsin Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes told CNN. Reports suggest that Trump plans to make a spectacle of the damage done by rioting. According to the Post, “White House staffers discussed the feasibility of Trump visiting the burned-out section of 22nd Avenue near 61st Street” in Kenosha.
It’s hard to predict what response will greet him. But it is clear that a president who proclaims “law and order!” on Twitter but relishes in its absence when it gives him an opportunity to demagogue is invested in sustaining the heated atmosphere that has become increasingly bloodthirsty of late. It’s a practiced he honed during his first campaign, when he encouraged supporters to assault protesters at his rallies, and maintains today. With Trump on his way to Kenosha this week and more of his troops potentially en route to Portland in the near future, it would be no surprise if America had yet to see the end of those cities’ troubles, or the president’s exploitation of them.