Letters From an American

Twitter Is Ablaze — Not Portland

Twitter Is Ablaze — Not Portland

The Twitter Inc. accounts of President Donald Trump, @POTUS and @realDonaldTrump. (Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

August 31, 2020

A bird’s eye view of the country today sees a president seeming to slide off the rails. Trump is exaggerating the violence in cities to the point of caricature, while his supporters outright lie to try to advance his candidacy. On Thursday, Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway tipped the president’s hand on “Fox and Friends” when she said that “the more chaos and anarchy and vandalism and violence reigns, the better it is for” a candidate running on “law and order.”

In the wake of the Republican National Convention, which failed to boost his candidacy, Trump has been tweeting at an intense pace. Between 5:49 am and 8:04 am on Sunday, he tweeted or retweeted 89 messages, many of them inflaming the conflicts between protesters and his supporters. He retweeted a post from One America News claiming that “According to the mainstream media, the riots & extreme violence are completely unorganized. However, it appears this coup attempt is led by a well funded network of anarchists trying to take down the President.”

Yesterday, the president called the participants in the Portland “Trump cruise rally” “GREAT PATRIOTS!” and today called them “peaceful,” despite the fact they were shooting paintballs and pepper spray and driving vehicles into crowds. Today the president condemned what he called “the radical left,” but refused to condemn Trump supporter Kyle Rittenhouse, the seventeen-year-old who allegedly shot and killed two people and wounded a third with a friend’s AR-15 rifle (meaning Rittenhouse had it illegally) in Kenosha, Wisconsin last week. Trump suggested Rittenhouse, who has been charged with homicide, was “very violently attacked” by demonstrators (the video does not indicate this). Trump supporters, including Fox News Channel personality Tucker Carlson, have also defended Rittenhouse.

This afternoon, Trump claimed that Portland, Oregon “is ablaze.” Josh Campbell, a CNN law enforcement correspondent on the ground in Portland and a former FBI supervisory special agent, called this a lie.

Campbell told CNN: “Portland is not a city under siege. Today, I went to a Starbucks downtown, ate lunch at one of the city’s famous downtown food trucks, and bought a new pair of shoes at the mall. As I write this, I’m looking out of my hotel room at a bike tour riding by outside on the downtown street…. To be sure, there have been protests — peaceful during the daytime, and some turning violent at night — for over 90 days, but the rioting has largely been confined to one city block downtown near the federal courthouse. Last night, protesters showed up at a police precinct a few miles from downtown and were dispersed by police after some protesters started throwing eggs and rocks at police cars. There has been periodic, localized violence, but nothing widespread.”

Portland firefighter Lt. Rich Chatman agreed: “WE ARE NOT ABLAZE IN PORTLAND,” he texted to CNN reporter Daniel Dale. “There is a very isolated pocket of demonstrations that have involved fire… none of which have been substantial enough to need more than 1 fire engine.”

Trump’s vision of the world is getting more and more conspiratorial. Tonight in an interview with Fox News Channel personality Laura Ingraham, he claimed that “people that are in the dark shadows” are controlling Biden. He claimed this weekend there was an airplane full of “thugs” in “black uniforms,” out “to do big damage.” When Ingraham pressed for more information, he said: “I’ll tell you sometime but it’s under investigation.” Ingraham said: “That sounds like conspiracy theory.”

To push these ideas, Trump and his people are deliberately constructing a false narrative.

Trump’s YouTube channel is now home to a video featured at the Republican National Convention on Monday, showing rioting and a city in flames and implying those scenes are America in the past several months. In the film, one sister tells another that “This is a taste of Biden’s America,” as photos and videos of violence play. “The rioting, the crime. Freedom is at stake now and this is going to be the most important election of our lifetime.” In fact, the video is from Barcelona, Spain, in 2019.

Twitter has had to begin displaying warning labels on videos that have been “quote tweeted” (meaning users don’t simply retweet them, they add their own words, first), after leading Republican officials have circulated deceptively altered or edited videos, designed to hurt Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s candidacy.

House Minority Whip Steve Scalise tweeted a video that spliced together footage from a conversation between Biden and progressive activist Ady Barkan, who speaks with an artificial voice because he has ALS. The video added words to what Barkan actually said to make it sound as if the two were agreeing to defund police departments (in fact, Biden has proposed to increase police funding to include more money for “social workers, psychologists, people who in fact can handle those god-awful problems that a cop has to have four degrees to handle”). To the video, Scalise added “No police. Mob rule. Total chaos. That’s the result of the Democrat agenda.”

Barkan tweeted to Scalise: “These are not my words. I have lost my ability to speak, but not my agency or my thoughts. You and your team have doctored my words for your own political gain. Please remove this video immediately. You owe the entire disability community an apology.” Josh Marshall of TalkingPointsMemo was angry on Barkan’s behalf: “[Steve Scalise] you’re a disgrace. Who even imagines the depravity of doctoring the words of a man robbed of his voice by ALS let alone stoops to do it” he tweeted.

Twitter labeled the tweet with a warning and, under pressure, Scalise took it down, but not before tweeting: “While Joe Biden clearly said ‘yes,’ twice, to the question of his support to redirect money away from police, we will honor the request of [Barkan] and remove the portion of his interview from our video.”

Today, White House Deputy Chief of Staff for Communications and Director of Social Media Dan Scavino also posted a manipulated video, this one supposedly showing Biden falling asleep during a live television interview. But it was a mix of an old video of singer Harry Belafonte, apparently napping before an interview while technical glitches were worked out, and Biden looking downward for a moment. Twitter had to break out another warning, and Belafonte simply said: “They keep stooping lower and lower. A technical glitch in an interview I did nine years ago now becomes another one of their lies, more of their fake news. I beg every sane American: please vote them out. I knew many who gave their life for the right to vote. Never has it been so vital to exercise that right.”

The Trump campaign wasn’t done yet, though: on Monday it also tweeted a clip of Biden saying “You won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America.” But in fact, when he said that, Biden was quoting the president and vice president. The full quotation was: “Trump and Pence are running on this, and I find it fascinating: Quote, ‘You won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America.’ And what’s their proof? The violence we’re seeing in Donald Trump’s America.”

Apparently trying to link Biden to a radical left, Trump continues to demand that Biden must condemn “the Anarchists, Thugs & Agitators in ANTIFA,” and Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) has tried to tie Biden to “the Marxist Left.” It would be a stretch to link the famously moderate Biden with any sort of far left in America in any case, but, in fact, Biden has repeatedly condemned violence across the board. “I condemn violence of every kind by anyone, whether on the left or the right,” he said Sunday. Today he added: “I want to make it absolutely clear…. Rioting is not protesting. Looting is not protesting. Setting fires is not protesting. . . . It’s lawlessness, plain and simple, and those who do it should be prosecuted. Violence will not bring change, it’ll only bring destruction. It’s wrong in every way.”

Biden accused Trump of “fanning the flames of hate and division in our society and using the politics of fear to whip up his supporters.”

The message that Trump is responsible for the unrest in the country is resonating with voters. A Military Times poll showed that almost 74% of active duty military personnel opposed Trump’s desire to use them against civil unrest in urban areas, while only 22% supported that idea. That opposition seems to be translating to voting preferences: 41.3% of active duty military personnel support Biden in the upcoming election, while 37.4 support Trump.

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Heather Cox Richardson

Heather Cox Richardson teaches American history at Boston College. She is the author of a number of books, most recently, How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America. She writes the popular nightly newsletter Letters from an American. Follow her on Twitter: @HC_Richardson.