In the weeks before Labor Day 2020, Ted Wheeler, the mayor of Portland, Oregon, began warning people that he believed someone would soon be killed by extremists in his city. Portland was preparing for the 100th consecutive day of conflict among anti-police protesters, right-wing counterprotesters, and the police themselves. Night after night, hundreds of people clashed in the streets. They attacked one another with baseball bats, Tasers, bear spray, fireworks. They filled balloons with urine and marbles and fired them at police officers with slingshots. The police lobbed flash-bang grenades. One man shot another in the eye with a paintball gun and pointed a loaded revolver at a screaming crowd. The FBI notified the public of a bomb threat against federal buildings in the city. Several homemade bombs were hurled into a group of people in a city park.
Extremists on the left and on the right, each side inhabiting its own reality, had come to own a portion of downtown Portland. These radicals acted without restraint or, in many cases, humanity.
In early July, when then-President Donald Trump deployed federal law-enforcement agents in tactical gear to Portland—against the wishes of the mayor and the governor—conditions deteriorated further. Agents threw protesters into unmarked vans. A federal officer shot a man in the forehead with a nonlethal munition, fracturing his skull. The authorities used chemical agents on crowds so frequently that even Mayor Wheeler found himself caught in clouds of tear gas. People set fires. They threw rocks and Molotov cocktails. They swung hammers into windows. Then, on the last Saturday of August, a 600-vehicle caravan of Trump supporters rode into Portland waving American flags and Trump flags with slogans like TAKE AMERICA BACK and MAKE LIBERALS CRY AGAIN. Within hours, a 39-year-old man would be dead—shot in the chest by a self-described anti-fascist. Five days later, federal agents killed the suspect—in self-defense, the government claimed—during a confrontation in Washington State.
What had seemed from the outside to be spontaneous protests centered on the murder of George Floyd were in fact the culmination of a long-standing ideological battle. Some four years earlier, Trump supporters had identified Portland, correctly, as an ideal place to provoke the left. The city is often mocked for its infatuation with leftist ideas and performative politics. That reputation, lampooned in the television series Portlandia, is not completely unwarranted. Right-wing extremists understood that Portland’s reaction to a trolling campaign would be swift, and would guarantee the celebrity that comes with virality. When Trump won the presidency, this dynamic intensified, and Portland became a place where radicals would go to brawl in the streets. By the middle of 2018, far-right groups such as the Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer had hosted more than a dozen rallies in the Pacific Northwest, many of them in Portland. Then, in 2020, extremists on the left hijacked largely peaceful anti-police protests with their own violent tactics, and right-wing radicals saw an opening for a major fight.
What happened in Portland, like what happened in Washington, D.C., on January 6, 2021, was a concentrated manifestation of the political violence that is all around us now. By political violence, I mean acts of violence intended to achieve political goals, whether driven by ideological vision or by delusions and hatred. More Americans are bringing weapons to political protests. Openly white-supremacist activity rose more than twelvefold from 2017 to 2021. Political aggression today is often expressed in the violent rhetoric of war. People build their political identities not around shared values but around a hatred for their foes, a phenomenon known as “negative partisanship.” A growing number of elected officials face harassment and death threats, causing many to leave politics. By nearly every measure, political violence is seen as more acceptable today than it was five years ago. A 2022 UC Davis poll found that one in five Americans believes political violence would be “at least sometimes” justified, and one in 10 believes it would be justified if it meant returning Trump to the presidency. Officials at the highest levels of the military and in the White House believe that the United States will see an increase in violent attacks as the 2024 presidential election draws nearer.
In recent years, Americans have contemplated a worst-case scenario, in which the country’s extreme and widening divisions lead to a second Civil War. But what the country is experiencing now—and will likely continue to experience for a generation or more—is something different. The form of extremism we face is a new phase of domestic terror, one characterized by radicalized individuals with shape-shifting ideologies willing to kill their political enemies. Unchecked, it promises an era of slow-motion anarchy. [Continue reading…]