Does anyone think there will be less violence in America if Donald Trump is reelected?
–Joe Biden, in a speech in Pittsburgh Monday
In 2013, Malcolm Gladwell published his book, “David and Goliath.” It was about how underdogs can gain an edge against their enemies — like the small man who took down the giant.
One of the stories Gladwell told was of Wyatt Walker, a civil rights activist who worked behind the scenes in the early 1960s. While Martin Luther King Jr. was the public face of the movement, Walker developed strategies to get as much press attention as possible. One of his successes took place in Birmingham, Alabama, where a racist named Bull Connor was in charge of “public safety.”
Walker knew that Connor had a short fuse and, if pushed far enough, would overreact. In the early days of May, 1963, Walker sent hundreds of Black school children into the streets to protest, only to have Connor’s cops sweep them up and toss them in jail. Walker expected that. So, the next day, he did it again, with wave upon wave of Black kids stepping out of a church and onto Birmingham streets, ostensibly headed for a large park. Connor wanted to stop them, but his jail cells were full. So, he called in firefighters and had them spray the kids (and hundreds of spectators) with strong water blasts from big hoses, knocking them down and into walls. When that didn’t stop the marchers from coming, Connor sent the K-9 corps after them — big dogs that were told to attack, in the hopes of scaring the protestors away.
Connor had fallen into Walker’s trap. The civil rights activists were savvy about public relations, and had notified the media about the march. That’s why there were lots of reporters and cameramen on the scene to record the authoritative overreaction to the peaceful marchers. Bill Hudson, a photographer for the Associated Press, took lots of pictures that day, including a perfectly-timed shot, just as one of Connor’s attack dogs got to Walter Gadsden, a sophomore at Park High who wasn’t even marching — he was a spectator. The still photo of the dog attacking a teenager said more about the savageness of Connor and his police brethren than any words King might have uttered that day.
Walker had done his job by getting his opponent to go too far. The picture was printed on the front page of pretty much every newspaper in America the next day and, like the coverage of the beatings at the Pettus Bridge in Selma, showed the whole country what racism looked like up close. The image helped change the minds of a lot of people across the nation.
I bring up this story because I think we’re seeing a parallel in recent actions by Trump. Though he holds the highest office in the land, polls say he’s the underdog in the upcoming presidential election, with Joe Biden leading by several points nationally and in most swing states. But that doesn’t mean the underdog has no ammunition.
In every city where peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstrations have morphed at night into violence and destruction, reporters and photographers (and people recording on their phones) have captured scenes of fires, graffiti, looting, and more. That footage has earned the moniker “Riot Porn,” because it fulfills the needs of the media, which loves visuals like that — especially right-wing outlets like Trump’s personal propaganda network, Fox News Channel, which uses it to make it seem like all of our cities are being destroyed from within.
In response, Trump has sent federal troops into some cities where, rather than making the situation better, their presence escalated tensions and caused more clashes between civilians and law enforcement. Plus, we know there have been outside agitators from white supremacist organizations, some of whom are the ones who did the property damage, not to mention militia members walking the streets openly carrying weapons and menacing peaceful protestors.
Which brings us to Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old vigilante from Illinois, who went to Kenosha a few days ago brandishing his long gun, and ended up killing two people. The right wing has rallied behind this murderer with all sorts of bogus claims, while the media reports on “deadly protests,” an inaccurate description of what took place. There was more mayhem this week in Portland, where a group of white supremacists drove through the city in a caravan, firing paintballs and pepper spray at random protestors and bystanders. In both of these stories, Trump praised the extremist interlopers, excusing their actions, while simultaneously holding up the incidents as evidence of urban decay at the hands of Democratic mayors and governors.
How is this akin to what Wyatt Walker did? In both circumstances, it was the media’s reporting that changed public opinion. And I fear that Trump’s not-at-all-subtle messages to his followers, that it’s up to them to maintain law and order at any cost, will bring further carnage and add fuel to the lies his propagandists — both on the air and online — are spreading. If you haven’t witnessed these stories being twisted and blown out of proportion, you haven’t been watching Fox, listening to talk radio, or seeing the conspiracy-laden posts of Trump’s followers that populate Facebook by the millions.
All of this serves as another example of the power of using fear as a motivator, and the target this time is suburban women. That’s the demographic that helped Trump get elected in 2016, but polls have shown him losing their support this time around. Thus, his Machiavellian manipulative messaging: The Dangerous [Black] People Are Coming To Kill You In Your Nice Quiet Suburban Subdivision.
That’s why he had the McCloskeys, the couple who became famous for standing outside their St. Louis mansion pointing guns at passing BLM protestors, speak at the Republican National Convention last week. Ironically, the McCloskeys don’t live in the suburbs — their private street is in the Central West End area of the city — but they are the personification of White Fear that Trump has been exploiting since he first rode down the escalator five years ago and told the world that Mexicans are drug-using criminals and rapists.
The fact is that, despite the over-blown attention, these skirmishes are small, contained to a few blocks in each city, and aren’t interrupting the daily lives of most residents, let alone Americans who live in the surrounding suburbs or rural areas. Unfortunately, that’s a truism that doesn’t reach Trump’s followers in their misinformation bubble. The danger lies in his Panic Plan getting the attention of a large enough swath of the swing voters who will determine the outcome of this election. If he scares enough of them, we’ll all have something else to be really afraid of — a second term for this Liar-In-Chief.
Trump and his acolytes are counting on the “Riot Porn” to continue through September and October, because it gives him an excuse to keep selling his fear factor. Isn’t that an amazing concept, that a sitting American president would purposely promote division from within for his own political purposes?
Wyatt Walker would roll over in his grave at the very thought of such desperation.