In a speech from the White House Rose Garden on Monday, June 1, President Donald Trump told the world it was time for law enforcement -- and, if necessary, the military -- to “dominate” America’s streets amid growing protests against police brutality and the killing of unarmed Black people. As if to punctuate Trump’s calls for a crackdown, Attorney General Bill Barr then ordered an alphabet soup of law enforcement agencies and military units to disperse a crowd of press and protesters gathered outside the White House at Lafayette Square with tear gas, flash-bang grenades and rubber bullets -- all for a photo-op with the president holding a Bible at a church across the street.
Unsurprisingly, many of Trump’s enablers in right-wing media were pleased with his violent response in Washington, D.C., and the resulting photo-op. In the days before that fiasco, Trump had lashed out in anger at the protesters while ignoring the issues of police brutality and racism triggering the protests that have now erupted in all 50 states. But now he was declaring war on “rioters” and a dubious new enemy: “antifa,” shorthand for antifascist activists.
So far, governors have refused Trump’s overtures to bring in active duty military personnel. But right-wing media -- and even some mainstream outlets -- are laying the groundwork for more state-sanctioned violence. Beyond praising the president, they are making the case for brutal crackdowns on demonstrators by justifying the use of tear gas and rubber bullets at Lafayette Square, calling for military intervention in U.S. cities, and justifying state-sanctioned violence by blurring the lines between peaceful protesters and those responsible for property damage and violence.
Here are examples of how right-wing media figures are making the case for a violent crackdown on the current nationwide protests from the week of June 1:
Arguing that the protesters at Lafayette Square got what they deserved
In a number of instances, right-wing media personalities equivocated about whether Trump and Barr’s decision to violently clear protesters from Lafayette Square was called for, or implied that tear-gassing and shooting rubber bullets at the crowd was not a big deal.
- When asked by Fox’s Sean Hannity about the use of tear gas and rubber bullets against protesters in Lafayette Square, Fox contributor Dan Bongino praised Trump for “having the stones to walk across the street in that park,” adding that “you have to have guts” to “say, ‘Screw the media, we’re going to do the right thing and we’re going to secure the city.’”
- Fox News anchor Ed Henry and contributor Marc Thiessen agreed that tear-gassing protesters was appropriate. “I'm sorry, he's the president of the United States,” Thiessen said. “If he wants to walk across Lafayette Park to St. John's Church, he can do so. … And if they had to use tear gas, what does that say about the protesters?” Thiessen later argued that the use of tear gas was justified, saying, “If they were peaceful protesters, there would be no need to use tear gas. It means they resisted.”
- On Fox’s The Five, co-host Jesse Watters said that Trump’s Bible stunt was a “powerful moment for the country” and argued that the “mob” at the Lafayette Square would have thrown bottles at the president if it wasn’t removed by force.
- Judicial Watch’s Tom Fitton on Twitter:
There is a massive media disinformation campaign to cover up the leftist violence and lawlessness outside the White House yesterday. @realDonaldTrump
— Tom Fitton (@TomFitton) June 2, 2020
“Send in the troops”: Justifying or calling for the use of overwhelming force
In the wake of police violence against the protesters and press, on June 3, The New York Times published an op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) advocating sending active military troops into American cities to put down protests with “an overwhelming show of force.” The Times quickly received criticism for the piece, including from its own staff.
In a prelude to the Times op-ed, Cotton had tweeted that not only should the troops be sent to the cities, but they should offer “no quarter for insurrectionists, anarchists, rioters, and looters.” (In military terminology, “no quarter” is an order to kill the enemy rather than accept their surrender -- a practice forbidden by both American and international law.)
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. https://t.co/OnNJmnDrYM
— Tom Cotton (@TomCottonAR) June 1, 2020
- Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) tweeted, “Now that we clearly see Antifa as terrorists, can we hunt them down like we do those in the Middle East?” Twitter later added a disclaimer to the tweet noting that Gaetz’s message “violated the Twitter Rules about glorifying violence,” but has allowed the tweet to remain on the site if users click past the disclaimer.
- On Hannity, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) said, “The law is: Protect the people. The first line of defense is the police, the second line of the defense is the National Guard, and finally, if need be, the military. But every politician shilling for antifa and allowing rioting and looting and murder to go wrong is grossly violating his oath and his obligation to the people. We need to keep people safe and end the riots.”
After Trump’s photo-op stunt and talk of domination, it didn’t take long for right-wing outlets to start posting glowing articles about the Trump administration and for conservative talking heads on cable news to burnish military intervention as a new talking point.
- The Washington Times ran two stories with headlines uncritically repeating the Trump administration’s belligerent new position:
- On his Fox prime-time show, Hannity urged states to use “overwhelming nonlethal force” against protesters.
- National Review ran an editorial with the headline “Yes, Meet Rioters with Overwhelming Force.”
- Trump advisory board member Steven Rogers went on Fox & Friends First and said local leaders need to take up the president’s offers of military personnel.
- On The Ingraham Angle, retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Robert Spalding said Trump has clear authority to break up protests, citing President Herbert Hoover’s assault on World War I veterans protesting outside Washington, D.C., in 1932. He also suggested that Trump’s tough language on antifa has led protesters to be more peaceful out of fear they will be targeted as domestic terrorists.
Justifying violence against “antifa” and “looters,” or alleging that protesters pose a broader threat
Incidents of violence against protesters and press far outnumber those against the police and business owners. Right-wing media, unsurprisingly, have homed in on the latter while ignoring the former, blurring the lines for its audience between peaceful protests and haphazard incidences of property damage and violence.
- Radio host Michael Savage suggested protesters “should’ve been put down ... like the feral dogs that they are.”
- Breitbart began to publish a series of articles about armed business owners defending property from “looters,” which included a gym and a gun store. (The Daily Wire ran with the same motif.)
- RedState ran an article celebrating vehicle attacks against protesters headlined: “Dear Protesters, Stop Being Surprised When You Get Run Over While Threatening People in Cars.”
- Derek Hunter of The Daily Caller’s podcast tweeted out a bizarre thread about cities eating themselves alive without police.
- Fox host Tucker Carlson told his audience that if protests continue, “violent young men with guns will be in charge. They will make the rules, including the rules in your neighborhood”
- On its website, Fox News reported without evidence that riotous “antifa” members were coming to the suburbs, warning that “arrests among its highest ranks may be imminent.”
- On Fox, Hannity told his audience that “Black Lives Matter is planning to train armed militia for war on police.”
- On his prime-time show, Carlson argued that Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s public opposition to sending active military troops into American cities was subverting democracy. Later in the show, former CIA officer Bryan Dean Wright told Carlson that “vigilante justice” may be necessary unless active military personnel are sent to quell “insurrections” by “violent leftist thugs.”
- On Fox & Friends, Fox correspondent-at-large Geraldo Rivera suggested police use extreme surveillance tactics and prosecute “antifa” as domestic terrorists.