Trump takes note as the far right lobbies for violent crackdown on peaceful protests

Adam Gabbatt in New York
Photograph: Robert Cohen/AP

As protests over the police killing of George Floyd continue across the US, a slew of influential rightwing figures have been urging an ever more violent crackdown on the demonstrations – and it appears Donald Trump is listening.

Republican politicians, media personalities and rightwing activists have floated ideas including deploying specific units of the military, while one Republican candidate for Congress has even suggested she will shoot protesters.

With a president who has previously formulated policy based on what is being mooted on conservative Fox News or among the rightwing Twitter-sphere, the consequences of this lobbying for violence could be severe.

Tom Cotton, a US senator for Arkansas who is said to be plotting a run for president in 2024, has been one of the loudest voices. 

“If local law enforcement is overwhelmed and needs backup, let’s see how tough these antifa terrorists are when they’re facing off with the 101st Airborne Division,” Cotton tweeted on Monday, pulling off the neat trick of both labelling anti-fascist activists “terrorists” and plugging his own service in the US army.

In a follow-up tweet, Cotton added: “And, if necessary, the 10th Mountain, 82nd Airborne, 1st Cav, 3rd Infantry—whatever it takes to restore order. No quarter for insurrectionists, anarchists, rioters, and looters.”

The phrase “no quarter” has historically meant to kill opponents, rather than arrest them, as MediaMatter’s Lis Power swiftly pointed out, but Cotton’s demand for the US military to take to the streets of cities and towns across the country was cheered by the president.

“100% Correct. Thank you Tom!” Trump tweeted, as he reposted Cotton’s idea.

In commentary on the demonstrations against police brutality, Cotton has repeatedly painted the situation in the US as a dystopian nightmare. He has suggested, wrongly, that there are “mass gatherings of rioters destroying our cities”, whereas the majority of the protests in the US have been non-violent. 

In a column, published by the New York Times amid controversy and under the headline “Send in the troops”, Cotton suggested “rioters have plunged many American cities into anarchy”. This will probably come as a surprise to people living in American cities, but this framing allowed Cotton to carry on his demand for a potentially violent crackdown on the protests.

“One thing above all else will restore order to our streets: an overwhelming show of force,” Cotton said in the NYT article, suggesting only this could end what he called an “orgy of violence”.

The agitating hasn’t been restricted to Cotton. 

On Sunday Noah Pollak, a writer for the conservative Washington Free Beacon, posted a photograph on Twitter of inmates being held in stress positions at Guantánamo Bay – the US naval prison where many Muslim men have been tortured since it opened in 2002 – along with the suggestion:

“We did it with al-Qaida terrorists, now it’s time to do it with antifa. Imagine the joyous feeling if you knew the people wearing orange jumpsuits in this picture had face piercings, purple hair, and were from Portland, Oregon. Camp X-Ray, GITMO.”

As the protests spread to cities across the country, the tough talk, largely from people paid to sit at desks, came thick and fast.

“Now that we clearly see antifa as terrorists, can we hunt them down like we do those in the Middle East?,” tweeted Matt Gaetz, a Florida congressman who has built a political career through his fealty to Trump. Gaetz’s post was blocked by Twitter, who deemed it to be “glorifying violence”.

In Georgia, Republican congressional candidate Marjorie Greene filmed a campaign advertisement which showed her standing outside a house holding what appeared to be a semi-automatic rifle.

“I have a message for antifa terrorists,” Greene said in the ad. She then cocked the gun and added: “Stay the hell out of north-west Georgia.”

Texan congressman Dan Crenshaw – another Trump favorite – joined the clamor for states to use the national guard on Tuesday, when he tweeted that New York City, where looting took place in some parts of the Bronx and midtown Manhattan earlier in the week “is in ruins”. 

At times it has seemed as if the right were straining to one-up each other. On the social media platform Gab, Jacob Wohl, a pro-Trump activist and conspiracy theorist who has gained a following among conservatives, suggested mercenaries should be sent to deal with protesters and also proposed that the military should be send into cities and given “shoot-to-kill orders”.

Whether Trump has been guided by the bloodlust or not, his militaristic response to the protests will probably have pleased many on the right.

On Monday Trump said he would “deploy the United States military” to states that he deemed had not responded adequately to protests.

To do so Trump would have to invoke the rarely used Insurrection Act of 1807, which allows the president to deploy the military domestically. Typically state governors have requested the deployment of the military, rather than having the federal armed forces foisted upon them, although a provision of the law does allow Trump to overrule states.

Later, police teargassed their way through a crowd of peaceful protesters at the White House so Trump could hold up a Bible outside a church, while on Tuesday, dozens of the District of Columbia national guard, in full military garb, stood on patrol at Washington DC’s Lincoln Memorial.