Bookman: Trump’s bad cop act fans flames of confrontation, vigilantism

Residents confront protesters near the Kenosha County Courthouse during rioting and clashes with police in Wisconsin in late August. Columnist Jay Bookman writes that President Donald Trump is fanning the flames of conflict among Americans. Scott Olson/Getty Images

Cops will tell you that domestic disputes can be the toughest calls they have to answer. Some do it well; others do not. 

A good cop knows that the first goal is to separate and calm the warring parties, to de-escalate the conflict before it blows up into something that becomes dangerous to everybody, including the officer.

A bad cop will walk into that same situation and, by adding his or her own fears, anger, ego and frustration, inflame it. What might have been handled peacefully, with no permanent damage to the family or anyone else, suddenly becomes much bigger and more tragic.

Well, Donald Trump is a very bad cop.

In the midst of extremely high tensions across this country, Trump has shown no interest whatsoever in calming the situation. To the contrary, he seems intent on fanning it, both because he needs conflict to excite him and because he has calculated that a country aflame is more likely to re-elect him as president.

“The more chaos and anarchy and vandalism and violence reigns, the better it is for the very clear choice on who’s best on public safety and law and order,” as his former aide Kellyanne Conway candidly put it.

Everybody has a villain in this story, the party they deem most responsible for growing political violence. For the left, it is the militias and white nationalists, the Proud Boys and the Boogaloos. To those on the right, antifa and Black Lives Matter are much more threatening. Looking at the death toll from domestic terrorism over the last 25 years, from the Oklahoma City bombing to Dylann Roof’s shooting spree at a Charleston church to attacks on synagogues to the murder of 23 people at an El Paso Wal-mart by an anti-immigrant fanatic, I would say that white nationalists, militias and other right-wing groups pose the far greater threat.

However, let’s set aside the argument of who is worse and try to find common ground: As Americans, wouldn’t it be better for ALL sides to renounce violence? As heightened as emotions are right now, shouldn’t we all work to ensure that our differences are settled where they ought to be settled in a civilized democracy, which is in the voting booth and not on the streets?

The president may not see it that way.

Last weekend, an estimated 600 cars and trucks full of Trump supporters, many of them armed, gathered outside the troubled city of Portland and then caravanned into the city center, looking for a fight. They got it, and one person ended up dead.  

A good cop, and a good leader, would try to discourage such actions, knowing it would lead to street violence. Instead, Trump celebrated it, lauding caravan planners as patriots and suggesting that his militia backers are only doing what local law enforcement could not. In short, he is encouraging vigilantes.

This nation has a long history with such vigilantism, none of it any good, as demonstrated here in Georgia with the recent murder of Ahmaud Arbery, the Brunswick jogger shot dead by gunmen trying to take the law into their own hands. But Trump does not seem to know or care about such things.

Heavily armed vigilante militias also took matters into their own hands last week in Kenosha, Wis., where protests and rioting had broken out. The head of the Kenosha Guard, a private militia, put out the call for volunteers and then posted a warning to Kenosha Police Chief Daniel Miskinis, telling him not to try to interfere because the militias were coming to town with an armed force of 3,000 men.

“I ask that you do NOT have your officers tell us to go home under threat of arrest as you have in the past,” the militia leader wrote on a Facebook post. “It is evident that no matter how many officers, deputies and other law enforcement officers that are here, you will still be outnumbered.”

President Donald Trump met with law enforcement in Kenosha, Wis. during a visit this week. Shealah Craighead/official White House photo

These are people supposedly defending law and order, warning the police not to interfere. It sounds like something out of a bad movie, but it is today in Trump’s America. And as it did in Portland, it produced tragedy. 

A 17-year-old kid, Kyle Rittenhouse, answered the militia’s call to arms and traveled to Kenosha from nearby Illinois. Before the night was through, he ended up killing two people. He has now been charged with first-degree murder.

Based on video and eyewitness testimony that I’ve seen, it may be difficult to get a murder conviction against Rittenhouse, who is claiming self-defense. But surely we can agree that an untrained 17-year-old kid – a kid who had been filmed a few weeks earlier punching out a female classmate – should not be wandering the streets past midnight during a riot, armed with an assault weapon. Surely we can agree that’s a very, very bad idea.

But no, we cannot. Many on the right are now celebrating Rittenhouse as a national hero, holding him up as someone to be emulated for taking the law into his own hands. “With a couple of pelts on the wall, dude is gonna have to fight off hot conservative chicks with a bat,” as one right-wing radio host put it.

His attorney was even more ominous:

“Kyle Rittenhouse will go down in American history alongside that brave unknown patriot at Lexington Green who fired ‘the shot heard round the world’ on April 19, 1775. A Second American Revolution has begun. #FightBack.”

These are not sentiments that can be carefully calibrated, that can be stoked when politically useful and then later dampened. Once unleashed, no one controls them. And while Joe Biden and other Democrats have repeatedly and emphatically denounced violence on all sides, left or right, and insisted that those caught rioting be arrested and jailed, Trump has refused to make any statement of the kind. 

He attacks violence perpetrated by those he perceives on the left, to the point of inventing fabulous conspiracy theories about an entire commercial airliner, “filled up with the looters, the anarchists, the rioters, people that obviously were looking for trouble.” But Trump has refused to condemn or even question violence that he perceives to be to his benefit. And if you condemn violence by one side, while condoning or encouraging by the other, then you are yourself fomenting violence.

In the past, Trump has repeatedly bragged that his backers are the tough people, the ones who would win the fight if it came to that. He is also telling his followers that the only way he can lose the election is through fraud, that the unrest is being organized and funded by rich people hiding “in the dark shadows” to take over the country.

These are dangerous times for our democracy, the most dangerous that I can remember. “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun,” Mao Zedong liked to say, and I’m afraid some of our fellow Americans are beginning to believe that’s true.


Jay Bookman
Jay Bookman covered Georgia and national politics for nearly 30 years for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, earning numerous national, regional and state journalism awards. He has been awarded the National Headliner Award and the Walker Stone Award for outstanding editorial writing, and is the only two-time winner of the Pulliam Fellowship granted by the Society of Professional Journalists. He is also the author of "Caught in the Current," published by St. Martin's Press.