“Stand back and stand by.”
When President Trump said those words to the far-right paramilitary group, the Proud Boys, at a presidential debate in September, I felt a terribly deep pit open in my stomach.
I feared that Trump’s overt dog whistle to a right-wing paramilitary group — by no means the only time he offered such provocations during his time in office — would embolden far-right groups to engage in actual violence before the end of his presidency. The fact that the Proud Boys vocally celebrated Trump’s public salute to their group, and used it to recruit new members, only heightened my fears.
I wanted to be wrong. I wanted, more than anything, to reach the end of the Trump presidency without my fears coming to fruition. I hoped against hope that Trump’s shocking command to “Stand back and stand by” would go down in history as overheated words, and nothing more.
Today, all of my worst fears have come true.
Far-right protesters broke into the United States Capitol Building as Congress voted to certify the Electoral College vote making Joe Biden the next president of the United States, forcing U.S. Capitol police to lock down every building in the complex. Members of Congress were given gas masks and evacuated, or forced to shelter in place. Protesters have gotten onto the floor of the Senate itself — and worse, have fired shots into the Senate chamber.
Footage from the inside shows scenes that look like something straight out of Adolph Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch.
Let us be perfectly clear about what is happening.
These are not lone wolf protesters, acting of their own volition with no link to the lame duck president who will occupy the White House for the next two weeks. No matter how weakly Trump may tweet at the protesters to stay peaceful, he cannot now disclaim responsibility for this violent mob threatening the peaceful transition of democratic power in this country.
Not when he has openly solicited election fraud in Georgia.
Not when he has spent the past months spreading increasingly outlandish conspiracy theories about election fraud in November, despite no evidence whatsoever for such claims.
Not when his words have falsely convinced 77% of Republicans that such imaginary voter fraud did in fact take place.
Not when his administration tried to deliberately suppress the Department of Homeland Security from publishing a report confirming what government analysts have long known — that far-right groups are now the most significant violent terrorist threat facing United States citizens.
Not when he personally led chants of “Lock her up” against Michigan’s Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer, after she was targeted by right-wing extremists in a kidnapping plot.
Not when just recently he instructed his supporters to “consider it” — election fraud — “an act of war, and fight to the death.”
Not when he cheered on violent right-wing counter-protesters confronting Black Lives Matter protests over the summer.
Not when he openly defended a young far-right adherent who murdered two left-wing protesters in Wisconsin.
Not when he responded to Black Lives Matter protests over the summer with the inciting words, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts” and called left-wing anti-racist protesters “thugs” in an attempt to dehumanize them.
Not when he responded to violent protests against coronavirus restrictions in Michigan by calling the violent right-wing protesters “very good people.”
All that happened in the last 10 months. But Trump seeded the ground for today’s shocking attack on democracy when he began his presidential campaign in 2016.
If his supporters encountered anti-Trump demonstrators, he said, “knock the crap out of them, would you? Seriously, OK? Just knock the hell … I promise you I will pay for the legal fees.” At least 54 criminal cases have cited Trump’s rhetoric as direct inspiration for right-wing political violence. He has repeatedly declined to denounce white supremacist groups, even as hate crimes have reached record highs in the U.S. reportedly increasing by a whopping 226% in counties that hosted Trump rallies.
Trump does not get to play innocent this week, and pretend he bears no responsibility for what is happening at the U.S. Capitol. This is on his head. He is directly responsible for any violence and loss of life that takes place.
Jews know from our history what happens when right-wing demagogues make threats of violence against left-wing opponents, and we have special reason to oppose Trump’s far-right incitement. But the truth is, every American needs to stand against this. Every American needs to denounce this violence and stand for a peaceful transition of power.
Democracy can disappear more easily than we care to admit. And I fear that today, we’ve seen the first glimpse of what that disappearance might look like. If we want a democracy, we have to work hard to keep it.
Joel Swanson is a contributing columnist for the Forward and a Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago, studying modern Jewish intellectual history and the philosophy of religions. Find him on Twitter @jh_swanson.