Last week, President Biden gave a speech in which he warned that some die-hard Trump supporters were responding to calls of violence and thereby endangering democracy. The result, at least from what I’ve seen on social media (and, in fact, even on regular media), has been a lot of those same MAGA folks infuriated that such an accusation would be made against them, calling Biden a “divider”… and doubling down on talk of violence.
This time around the object of their fury - well, before that speech - was a legal and clearly warranted search of Trump’s premises to look for to- secret documents he was suspected of illegally removing and (unsafely) storing at his golf resort. I was shocked to see conservative friends whom I’ve always known as clear-headed calling on social media for potential violent insurrection. FBI agents were targeted around the country - one Trump supporter tried to break into FBI headquarters, in Dayton, Ohio, with a nail gun, apparently thinking it would shatter the bulletproof glass and allow him entrance to shoot up the place - he died in a shoot-out with police.
Thanks to Jan. 6, 2021, we now know, with certainty, what effect the words of Trump and his political cronies can have when used to inflame his base with violent rhetoric. Violent rhetoric leads to violent action. Since Trump came down that golden escalator, in 2015, we have seen plenty of both - with the vast majority of it coming from the far right. Now, some reading this column might argue that most of the violence is coming from Black Lives Matter and Antifa and point to demonstrations where property was damaged. That has been greatly exaggerated by Fox News and other outlets, which minimize (or omit completely) what some on the far right have done: Violent protest in Charlottesville, which led to a young liberal woman being murdered with a car, and many others being injured. The insanely violent assault on our Capitol, which is a black mark on the history of this country. Synagogue shootings, supermarket shootings, and various other shootings in the last few years that have targeted people by race, religion, sexual orientation, and so on. And on and on and on.
In 2017 there was a Black Lives Matter event held on Tennessee Tech campus, hosted by an African-American fraternity. There were some speeches, a poem or two read, a song or two sung, and it closed with everybody present (including a large number of white allies) hugging each other. But social media was insane, and several local people stated their intention to drive by with guns to “defend themselves” against the protesters. I had one (white) student ask me if classes were being canceled that day for the students’ safety from BLM and said he had read on social media that black students intended to rape every white girl they found on campus that day. The police wound up cordoning off every street leading to the event… to protect protesters from armed hooligans, not the other way around. Something similar happened on the Cookeville square, in May 2020, after the murder of George Floyd.
Here is my point. Trump and his cronies keep calling for violence, and gullible people who support him are providing it. I fear that we are sitting on a powder keg. Most of those folks are acting in fear - unfounded fear, stoked for political gain by Trump and company - and nothing is more dangerous than someone who is scared. Have you seen the Twilight Zone episode “The Monsters Are Coming to Maple Street?” We acted out the script when I was a student at White County Middle School. (I wonder if teachers are still allowed to do that). Its moral: when we are ruled by panic and paranoia, we become the monsters.
Step back, friends, take a breath, and remember that you love your neighbor.
--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.