Donald Trump’s most engaged supporters are getting agitated, and it’s making everyone else nervous.
Over the weekend, footage from Texas, in which Trump supporters driving pickup trucks and flying oversize “Trump 2020” flags surrounded a Biden campaign bus at high speed, captured the attention of the national press. These Trump fans created dangerous conditions on the road, and the FBI is investigating the incident. But they were not alone. Elsewhere, similarly viral footage has featured Trump supporters aggressively confronting Biden voters or blocking traffic on major highways such as the New Jersey Parkway’s express lane.
Contrary to what is demanded of any responsible elected official, the president has actually defended this reckless misconduct. That kind of irresponsible rhetoric contributes to a heightened sense of anxiety among the political class, and understandably so. Right-wing groups have already been implicated in criminal violence, including an interdicted plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and one incident in which a right-wing extremist shot at a Minneapolis police precinct in the hopes of implicating anti-police violence demonstrators.
Against this backdrop, media outlets are warning of the potential for episodes of destabilizing violence after Tuesday’s vote, and the culprits are expected to be creatures of the right as much (or more, depending on the publication) as they are of the left.
And yet, residents of cities such as New York City, Los Angeles, and Washington D.C. have seen local proprietors take the proactive step of boarding up their businesses ahead of Election Day. For many, this is yet another opportunity to castigate “armed right-wing militias.” But retail outlets in America’s dark-blue urban enclaves are not voluntarily sealing themselves up behind plywood barricades over the expectation that marauding bands of Trump supporters are headed their way.
The very notion that business owners would go to such lengths and sacrifice desperately needed revenue in fear of right-wing mobs represents a triumph of ideology over empiricism. The acute menace urban retailers face has been on terrible display all year. Moreover, the threat posed by violent anti-Trump demonstrators is not merely a recent phenomenon. It is a torment that predates the Trump presidency.
Violence attributable to Trump’s most vociferous opponents began before the votes were cast, but it was directed at identifiable Trump supporters. The directionless mob violence that has typified 2020 began just hours after the 2016 election results were known. As ABC News reported, the massive demonstrations that took place one day after Election Day were “mostly peaceful,” except when they were astonishingly violent.
Just over 24 hours after the polls had closed in Oakland, California, police deployed crowd-dispersal ordnance to disrupt a violent demonstration in which three police officers were injured and two patrol cars were set on fire. Freeways in Los Angeles were shut down by demonstrators who, elsewhere, burned Donald Trump in effigy. In Portland, Oregon, American flags were torched, and protesters paralyzed interstate highways and rail lines. Nationwide, more than 120 were arrested in the conduct of those violent demonstrations, but the violence did not end after just one night. By the end of the week, the number of arrests had doubled. Though many cities were witness to disruption and vandalism, places like Portland were positively ransacked. Cars were vandalized and burned, businesses saw their windows smashed out, and some lost power when protesters took baseball bats to electrical boxes.
Instability reigned throughout the interregnum, but that tense peace didn’t hold for very long. On Donald Trump’s inauguration day in 2017, the violence erupted again. Just blocks away from where Trump was taking the oath of office, organized gangs of self-described anarchists destroyed storefronts and car windows with baseball bats and chunks of pavement torn up from the streets. They set vehicles and trash cans alight, erected impromptu “checkpoints” around Washington D.C., and injured six police officers in the melee. Two hundred thirty-four people were arrested that day, though the vast majority were either not convicted or had the charges against them dropped by prosecutors.
These sporadic and short-lived episodes of political violence in the streets pale when compared to the sustained and widespread mayhem Americans witnessed over the course of 2020. A study affiliated with Princeton University and published in early September found that no fewer than 220 American municipalities experienced “riots” over the course of this year. In the weeks that have passed since that study’s publication, places like Oakland and Los Angeles, California; Richmond, Virginia; and Aurora, Colorado witnessed property destruction and violent confrontations between police and unruly crowds.
In August, Chicago’s glitzy downtown was targeted by organized rioters who ripped ATMs from walls, raided pharmacies for their prescription drugs, and used cars to ram storefronts for coordinated looting, the bounty from which was whisked away in rented U-Haul trucks. Just last week, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf activated the National Guard to put down rioting and looting in Philadelphia. “We understand businesses are anxious and we’re anxious before the election,” said Philadelphia Department of Commerce official Sylvie Gallier Howard, “so we’re encouraging them to be prepared.” That was hardly a comfort to Philadelphia resident Joyce McCloud, whose local pharmacy had already been gutted by looters. “It’s not going to get better,” she lamented. “You know it’s going to get worse.”
The preponderance of evidence suggests that, if you’re taking the extraordinary step of boarding up your place of business situated in one of America’s major metropolitan areas, it’s not the potential for pillaging right-wing hordes that has you concerned. That reality is so blindingly obvious that only those who are most committed to a narrative could avoid it.