In Portland, Oregon on Saturday night, a man was shot and killed. Though the exact circumstances of his death are still not clear, he was reportedly associated with Patriot Prayer, a far-right extremist group. Earlier in the day, there were several brawls between the group and leftist counterprotesters during a large parade of Trump supporters through the city.
It is of course tragic when anyone is murdered, and should this turn out to be a premeditated political killing of some kind, it would be an extremely disturbing indication of where the country is headed. But we must be clear that the broader context of political violence is something the Trump-supporting far right is welcoming, celebrating, and trying to create, even as they insist that only Trump can be trusted to restore “law and order.”
Patriot Prayer is a flavor of Trump-supporting militia that tendentiously claims to be against racism despite supporting a racist president, associating with other openly-racist gangs like the Proud Boys, and receiving regular praise from racist outlets like The Daily Stormer. It’s basically the alt-right with a slightly more respectable brand.
Importantly, Patriot Prayer is not actually from Portland — it is based in Vancouver, Washington, the city’s largest suburb. On Saturday, they and other Trump supporters met in Clackamas (another suburb) and formed a huge caravan of trucks and SUVs that drove into downtown Portland. The obvious intention was to occupy the city and stir up violence and unrest, which is what happened, just as it has on many previous occasions going back years. Driving around in gigantic trucks waving Trump signs and “thin blue line” flags of police support — the Portland Police Department is notoriously brutal and friendly with far-right extremists — in a progressive city is an act of spiteful aggression intended to infuriate liberals and leftists, and provoke a response.
As Alex Pareene has written, in the context of a left-leaning, Democratic city, the whole panoply of Trump symbolism is about provocation:
In America’s numerous homogenous white enclaves, the MAGA hat is merely a symbol of fealty to the in-group, like a Cincinnati Bengals jersey. In a diverse city, it’s a statement of defiance or aggression—like a Bengals jersey in Cleveland, if the Bengals were, instead of merely a mediocre football team, somehow the spiritual inheritors of a powerful political tendency, dating back to before the founding of the republic, devoted to the ongoing oppression and exploitation of Clevelanders. [The Baffler]
When a response is provoked, as happened in Portland when counter-protesters blocked traffic at one intersection, that becomes an excuse to escalate things further — several Trump goons in their massive trucks bulldozed through the group (committing multiple crimes), while spraying chemical weapons in every direction. It’s a wonder nobody was killed.
Portland is famously one of the most left-wing cities in the country, full of radicals, artists, and counterculture types. Trump lost the county in which it resides 17-73. For the far right, cities like that are primarily a place they can stage their particular brand of amped-up postmodern grievance politics — where they can try to bait a reaction from antifa or imaginary “cultural Marxists,” and give themselves permission to let loose more violence while pretending they didn’t start it. As I have written before, it’s part of classic fascist politics: stoking violence to indulge lizard-brain impulses among its street brawlers, to intimidate the left, and to create an impression of disorder to frighten cowardly centrists.
A democratic republic is a useful form of government for many reasons, but one of the most important ones is it moves political competition away from violence and towards the ballot box. If an election is lost, parties who did not win can regroup and try to win the next one instead of overthrowing the government by force. But this only works if a critical mass of the population views the electoral process as legitimate.
That is less and less true of the American right, which increasingly tries to win by cheating — through gerrymandering, vote suppression, destroying the Post Office, and so on — instead of getting more votes. One reason this is happening is that the right is thoroughly gripped by crackpot conspiracy nonsense. But another is the accurate perception that conservatives cannot win a fair election, even though American institutions are already ludicrously biased towards them. And there is no more blatant form of cheating democracy than violently attacking one’s political opponents.
Trump himself is encouraging all this. He called the Patriot Prayer caravan “GREAT PATRIOTS” in a tweet. He refuses to denounce the QAnon conspiracy theory, which is associated with many violent crimes. And in the case of the worst violence — assault and murder committed by neo-Nazi terrorists — Trump has repeatedly drawn a false equivalence between hate groups and those who stand up to them. That in turn is fueling an ever-more justifiable sentiment on the left that American democracy is a sham and people should take to the streets.
We should all hope that democracy is preserved and nobody else is hurt or killed over politics. But we know where the overwhelming majority of political violence is coming from today: Donald Trump and his extremist supporters.