Stoking divisions to the end

Published by The i paper (16th November, 2020)

The crowd charged down the street. Then there were shouts, scuffles and some nasty-sounding thuds. As the police cleared the mass of people, a middle-aged black woman lay on the ground with blood on her face and a smashed phone on the ground beside a braid ripped from her head. She looked shocked and confused as an officer helped her to her feet and protected her from the baying mob around her. One man beside me, his face contorted by fury and hate, was screaming: ’Now you can see what it is like, you bitch, you f**king bitch. How does it feel, bitch?’

This horrible sight occurred late on Saturday night. It followed a big rally joined by thousands of hardcore Trump fans, who marched through Washington in support of the President’s baseless claims of election fraud. Mostly the event was peaceful, a sea of red baseball hats, flags, colourful banners and chanting people strolling in the sun through their nation’s capital. Yet the intensity of anger bubbling beneath the surface erupted frequently at the slightest provocation – and not just from the far-right groups who showed their presence and were often applauded.

Judging from her black clothing and helmet, that beaten woman was an activist with Antifa. Earlier in the day I had been in a throng of protesters held back behind metal barriers as they hurled abuse at a few more of these black-clad agitators who were taunting them, safely protected by the police they wish to stop funding. I watched in amazement as a little white-haired old woman unleashed a torrent of foul-mouthed abuse at them, claiming they were destroying her country, then a bearded man in a Trump hat exploded in fury. When I rounded the barriers, a blonde woman in a T-shirt with the slogan “Talking to you reminds me to clean my gun” under a stars-and-stripes jacket seemed to have been driven insane with fury by the media presence.

The event – supporting a narcissistic man brooding over rejection by his nation – felt like the last stand of Trump’s presidency. “He is extremely angry, extremely upset,” said Anthony Scaramucci, his former press secretary. “Don’t underestimate the humiliation of this loss.” As Joe Biden attempts to press ahead on transition and Republicans soil themselves by backing an assault on their democracy, rumours are circulating about the real intentions of a man Scaramucci described to me as “an arsonist and a nihilist”.

Is Trump’s refusal to concede simply a scam to raise funds to pay down debts? Is he set to launch a television station or another run at the presidency in 2024? Would he dare pardon himself, leak state secrets to cause trouble or even detonate a conflagration to retain office? Possibly the 45th President is merely “going through the various stages of grief”, in the words of one insider, after not expecting defeat. This would explain his unusual silence in recent days, beyond deluded ranting about fraud on Twitter. At least he has conceded there could soon be another occupant in the White House.

But have no doubt about his irresponsibility, inflaming tensions in a hideously divided nation. A depressing 70 per cent of Republicans now believe the electoral process was not free and fair. Prepare to see Biden’s team tormented by their enemies, especially if the Democrats lose the Senate, and trashed in darker parts of the digital world. For the past four weeks I have spoken to voters across the gaping American divide. Most are affable, open and often eloquent on their political views. Yet for all the familiarity of the shops and restaurants, it is like visiting two different countries when you hear people in this highly partisan media landscape talk about issues.

I have lost count of how many times I have been told by conservative voters that their next president is a communist or a paedophile, based on online smears, while some liberals seem to despise many fellow citizens. For a few people, such views calcify into anger that leads to violence as they seek to claim “their” streets – as I have seen and heard from self-righteous fanatics on both sides.

I spent time with Antifa activists in Portland – an Oregon city where the windows of city centre shops and offices have been boarded up since late May due to violent protests, creating an even stranger atmosphere in the empty streets of pandemic. I watched as they donned battle gear, sought confrontation with police and destroyed property. In Richmond, Virginia, militia members clutching semi-automatic weapons talked to me about revolution as they boasted about carrying illegal ammunition. At the weekend in Washington, I was with the Proud Boy leaders as they set out from a bar to fight their foes, some joking about “going hunting” and kicking people in the face. Two hours later, the result was that woman lying bloodied on the ground.

True to form, Trump ignored facts to tell his 88.9 million Twitter followers that “antifa scum” waited to attack “innocent” people attending the march. Let us hope that rally was his last hurrah in office, although no doubt he will continue to stoke dissent whatever he does. Yet he leaves a very troubled nation.

One man in Virginia told me Trump’s bid to save his presidency was “a lost cause, like the confederacy”, then added that he was exercising hard in case of civil war. A Pennsylvania militia leader claimed they will use their guns to resist Biden’s bid to remove assault weapons from society. My final conversation was with a professor of politics who said the divisions and political antics increasingly reminded him of his Latin American birthplace. “We pretend it is about politics but it is really culture,” he said. “Countries can fall apart but no one thinks it can happen here.”

Grim words in torrid times.

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