The Right-Wing Violence Trump Has Encouraged Has Deep Roots in American History

The far-right violence that Donald Trump has stoked has deep roots in US history. Kicking him from office won’t change that — but it would deal a blow to right-wing vigilantism.

Law enforcement officers stand on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial as demonstrators protest against police brutality and the death of George Floyd, on June 2, 2020 in Washington, DC. Win McNamee / Getty

Throughout his reelection campaign, Donald Trump and his allies have aggressively pushed law-and-order rhetoric, conjuring up lurid fantasies about “antifa” violence while encouraging extralegal actions by vigilante groups like the Proud Boys. They’ve sought to exploit paranoid fears of roving gangs while appealing to so-called patriotic militias. And they’ve defended police brutality and attacked Black Lives Matter (BLM) protesters even as they champion right-wing groups that defy government mandates for masks and other protective measures.

Given the robust public support for the Black Lives Matter movement, Trump and his supporters have appeared desperate at times. Yet Trump’s belligerence, no matter how unpopular, has emboldened his most extreme backers and found support among cops on the beat. In addition to facing brutality from law enforcement, BLM protesters have endured intimidation and violence from weapon-carrying, back-the-blue vigilantes in major cities (Austin, Louisville, Philadelphia, Portland) and small communities (Kenosha, Wisconsin, population 100,000; Weatherford, Texas, population 25,000). Counterprotesters have celebrated the actions of the police while terrorizing protesters.

Historically, reactionaries and vigilantes have been especially effective in imposing their will in small and medium-sized communities compared to larger cities, where activists enjoy access to networks of like-minded comrades. The July 25 episode in Weatherford, a community thirty miles west of Fort Worth, is a case in point — underscoring the historic complicity of law enforcement in vigilantism, even though its perpetrators, unlike Kyle Rittenhouse in Kenosha, did not resort to deadly force.

What Happened in Weatherford

Counterprotesters assembled on Saturday, July 25, in Weatherford, incensed at the presence of local and out-of-town BLM supporters demanding the removal of the town’s Confederate statue. Sneering counterprotesters, many of them armed with guns and toting a variety of flags (Texas, Confederate, American, pro-Trump, and Blue Lives Matter) angrily shouted “go home” and applauded as armored police officers arrived on the scene.

When a standoff ensued, a few counterprotesters threw punches at BLM demonstrators in full view of the police. One witness would later express shock at the “many Weatherford police officers ignoring the physical assaults and gun waving from counter-protesters.” The self-identified defenders of Weatherford and its Confederate statue, outnumbering BLM demonstrators by roughly four to one, succeeded in intimidating, and ultimately driving out, the protesters. While BLM supporters locked arms as they retreated, the vigilantes clapped and sang “na na na na, na na na na, hey hey hey, goodbye!”

Men walk toward law enforcement with their hands up in Kenosha, Wisconsin, after the shooting of Jacob Blake on August 23. (Brandon Bell / Getty Images)

In a final show of intimidation, a few armed men in expensive pickup trucks followed the protesters to their cars. As an anti-BLM participant named Rick B. put it in the comment section of a local news article about the protest, “The counter protesters were there because we are SICK AND TIRED of your Marxist CRAP….you’re protesting is a fraud and it’s going to stop.”

The scene in Weatherford was eclipsed by the deadly Kenosha and Portland confrontations that played out this summer. But the dramatic episode closely resembles earlier “law and order” campaigns that sought to stamp out left-wing organizing — often with the backing of law enforcement.

Historical Parallels

Contemporary historians often call attention to the “law-and-order” campaigns of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when elites in both parties beefed up law enforcement amid urban-based rebellions, the Black Power movement, and anti-war protests. Advocates of aggressive policing and stricter sentencing made subtle and not-so-subtle appeals to white suburbanites who associated black people with criminality. Police militarization and campaigns to “support your local police” proliferated.

But the mutually supportive relationships on display in Weatherford between official and vigilante “law-and-order” efforts have roots that go back much further, to the nineteenth century. During the Reconstruction era and the Gilded Age, right-wing organizations like the Ku Klux Klan in the South, stockgrowers’ associations throughout the West, and “Committees of Safety” and “Law and Order Leagues” in the Midwest and on the East Coast wreaked terror on their victims. During the so-called Progressive Era, some self-proclaimed law-and-order advocates formed Citizens’ Alliances to attack organized labor. And many ruling elites advocated professionalizing police departments, including in Pennsylvania, where the reform-minded governor established the first state police force against the strenuous objections of the state’s labor federation in 1905.

From the late 1860s to World War I, those waving the banner of “law and order” were often, though not always, motivated by a desire to maintain white supremacy. Their targets included small landowners of different races, teachers, alleged “rustlers,” labor union activists, anarchists, and socialists. Members of these powerful groups adopted techniques, including waving guns, to drive out their targets in the name of “law and order.”

The Reconstruction period was especially repressive. As historian Stephen Kantrowitz has argued, the Ku Klux Klan insurgency in the Southern states helped construct a new order of violent racial domination and reestablish what its spokespersons called “law and order.” In his memoirs, John B. Gordon, who became a Klan leader in Georgia, asked, “what assurance can we have of law and order and the safety of our families with four million slaves suddenly emancipated?”

Hiram Wesley Evans, a Dallas dentist and grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, marches in Washington DC in 1926. Library of Congress

Klansmen, hoping to control black laborers, were particularly incensed by the appearance of “outsiders” — mostly northern Republicans who taught in “negro schools” or oversaw Freedmen’s Bureaus. Klansmen, working closely with the plantation elite (they often overlapped), frequently gave outside educators an ultimatum: leave the community or face a “thrashing.”

Reconstruction-era Klansmen were hardly the only self-identified “law-and-order” group to use drive-out campaigns to get their way. In parts of the North, Law and Order Leagues, which emerged in the spring of 1886, also practiced this method of vigilantism. Started in Sedalia, Missouri, in March, the Law and Order Leagues played a direct role in fighting Knights of Labor members during that year’s massive Southwest railroad strike. And like the Klan, the Law and Order Leagues were led by the most well-off members of society.

These gun-carrying men complemented, rather than competed with, National Guardsmen and local police officers as they intimidated strikers and escorted scabs through picket lines. Most notoriously, members of Sedalia’s branch drove out and effectively blacklisted the strike’s principle organizer, Martin Irons. They were unforgiving, insisting that Irons’s punishment last long after the strike’s defeat. Newspaper owner and Law and Order League head J. West Goodwin kept Irons’s name in the news for years, contributing to his downfall. Irons spent more than a decade moving from town and town before dying in 1900 outside of Waco, Texas, where, legendary socialist Eugene Debs wrote, he “bore the traces of poverty and broken health.”

Members of Law and Order Leagues — which cropped up in numerous small cities, including Parsons, Kansas; Logansport, Indiana; and the Coeur d’Alene area of Idaho — were interested in more than breaking strikes and busting unions. They were intent on driving out socialists and anarchists, a special nuisance to the ruling class following the infamous Haymarket bombing in May 1886. In some cases, the “best citizens” in these northern communities adopted the same actions as the Klansmen more than a decade earlier.

For the Klan, the outside troublemakers were Republicans. For the Law and Order Leagues in the mid-1880s and early 1890s, they were anarchists, socialists, and union militants. But the actions and outcomes were basically the same. In the face of intimidation, fearful individuals hurriedly gathered their belongings and left town for good. As far as their attackers were concerned, this was a win: the individuals who threatened their class interests had been expelled.

Vigilante Violence

Vigilantes continued to harass ordinary people in the final years of the nineteenth century in the name of “law and order.” They benefited from laws on the books, including the “right to stand one’s ground.” Members of powerful stockgrowers’ associations in parts of Montana and Wyoming could be especially violent. One of the most infamous cases occurred in 1892 in Johnson County, Wyoming, where dozens of Wyoming Stock Growers Association members, holding a seventy-person kill list, invaded the region under the banner of fighting “rustlers.” They slaughtered two men before President Benjamin Harrison dispatched troops to protect the invaders.

In urban areas, elites set up their own vigilante organizations, including Citizens’ Alliances, while collaborating with the police. Building on early examples of what historian David Montgomery described as “policing people for the free market” in the pre–Civil War era, public authorities established police departments and allowed their members to work with employer associations and detective agencies.

Few did more to justify top-down violence against “the dangerous classes” than Owen Wister, the author of the best-selling 1902 novel The Virginian, loosely based on the Wyoming episode. Wister inserted pro-vigilante dialogue into his novel, suggesting a limited choice between the law or “popular justice,” which his hero helped carry out in the book’s climactic conclusion.

And no group was more important in the early twentieth century in bringing together old vigilantes and self-identified reformers than the Citizens’ Industrial Association of America (CIAA). Former Klansmen, veterans from the Law and Order Leagues, and an assortment of other one-time vigilantes led this proud “law-and-order” organization. In the remote mine regions of Colorado, armed CIAA members, working closely with National Guardsmen, raided the homes of union members and socialists, forcing them to leave their communities in 1903 and 1904.

Like the Johnson County raid and earlier Klan attacks, these actions generated negative publicity. In July 1904, the socialist publication The Worker called the organization of these drive-out campaigns “Capitalist Ku Klux Klan.” To win greater public confidence in the growing anti-union movement, CIAA leader C. W. Post oversaw the development of a public relations committee in 1907. The best-known member of that seven-person committee: Owen Wister.

The same year Post appointed Wister to the group’s propaganda arm, the obscenely wealthy cereal and foods manufacturer, concerned about the growing spread of socialism around the nation, purchased 213,324 acres of land in western Texas, where he created Post City. Here, he promoted law and order as well as individual homeownership, believing that investments in private property would protect the community from anarchist, socialist, and union threats. An early sign in the small city indicated that not all were welcome: “No Negroes in the Country.” From the perspective of Post’s political bigwigs, backed by the city’s police department, black lives didn’t matter.

The Persistence of the Far Right

Today’s violent racists and anti-radicals are contemporary iterations of historical precedents. As scholars have shown, elected officials, judges, and police forces have enabled or actively participated in vigilantism for well over a century. Neither Trump’s “law-and-order” rhetoric, the Proud Boys’ actions in Portland, the vigilantes that invaded Kenosha, nor the drive-out campaign, done in full view of Weatherford’s police department, are without antecedents.

Regardless of the results of today’s election, we can expect future eruptions of vigilantism, police violence, and state coddling of right-wing thugs. All of these are as American as apple pie, simmering below the surface and surging into public at different points in history. We shouldn’t be surprised when they reappear. But booting Trump from office would be a start in pushing them back into the recesses of American society — and delivering a blow to right-wing vigilantism.