by Christopher F. Rufo
The resurgence of public protests in support of Hamas has revealed a disturbing truth: the left-wing rioting following George Floyd’s death in 2020 was not an anomaly, but a tactic that activists can repurpose for any cause. Whether by coincidence or design, these recent outbursts could be a dress rehearsal for possible violence during next year’s election campaign.
Conservative leaders must prepare for that prospect. To prevent 2020 from repeating itself in 2024, conservatives need to consider what might spark a riot, how it can be prevented, and how to understand and manage the politics of rioting.
First, what could generate a riot season? Left-wing agitation has some familiar causes: a police-involved death of a black person; an international conflict; an economic crisis. But another threat looms. Former president Donald Trump, the frontrunner for the Republican nomination, faces multiple criminal indictments. Trump may well be convicted and imprisoned, likely yielding explosive consequences, including possible violence from both sides of the ideological divide.
Progressives are restless and ready. Left-wing activists have established a constellation of institutions to support public demonstrations. Protest NGOs, media entities, research centers, black-bloc (Antifa) networks, and bail funds are all finely tuned to mobilize mass movements. The Left carefully manages its licit and illicit factions: progressive political leaders tacitly delegate the dirty work to anarchist and racialist factions, which can change costumes—for example, from a BLM mask to a Palestinian keffiyeh—at any moment.
Red-state governors should start preparing now. They should instruct state law enforcement to establish interagency task forces to monitor, infiltrate, and disrupt violent left-wing activist networks to the fullest extent permitted by law. If they uncover illegal activity, they should make arrests and prosecute offenders. As I have observed in the Pacific Northwest, these groups are relatively small and depend on specific leadership nodes. They make little effort to hide their goal of overthrowing America’s basic institutions and their willingness to use political violence to do so. Law enforcement should follow a simple mantra: disrupt the nodes, disrupt the network. The invisible work of prevention is far superior to a public fight during a potential riot.
Republican officials must also shift incentives. Governors should pass legislation increasing penalties for rioting and train National Guard units in anti-riot tactics. After Floyd’s death, Florida governor Ron DeSantis demonstrated the effectiveness of this approach. In 2020, DeSantis activated the National Guard and declared “zero tolerance” for violence. As a result, Florida saw minimal rioting, looting, and destruction compared with many other states. In 2021, DeSantis signed the Combating Public Disorder Act, which tightened restrictions on violent rioting, criminalized mob intimidation, increased penalties for destroying monuments, and provided legal protection for drivers who might injure or kill protesters who put them in fear for their lives.
While the anti-riot bill was quickly entangled in court challenges, it sent a strong signal: if you riot in Florida, you will pay a price. After Hurricane Idalia hit earlier this year, DeSantis followed a similar line, warning potential looters that citizens would defend themselves against threats: “You loot, we shoot.”
Preparation, however, can only go so far. If riots do erupt in American cities, what can conservative political leaders do to quell them? Two basic approaches are possible: a “ground war” and an “air war.” The first option is summarized by Senator Tom Cotton’s infamous New York Times editorial, published during the summer of Floyd: “Send In the Troops.” The first-order benefit of this approach is clear: National Guard units can suppress riots, protect lives and property, and restore public order. But it also carries a risk. The Left has mastered the tactic of baiting law enforcement into a reaction, framing any response as “authoritarian” and using the national media to shift public opinion.
The second option is an “air war”—that is, via the airwaves. Whether by choice or necessity, political leaders can enact a policy of containment, leaving the mayhem in certain neighborhoods for local authorities to handle, while waging a battle for public opinion in the media and blaming the political Left for the violence and destruction. This was, to an extent, President Trump’s policy during the summer of 2020. Fearing that “sending in the troops” would mobilize opposition, provide fodder for charges of “fascism,” or create a political quagmire, he adopted a posture of strategic neglect, allowing radicals to run rampant in parts of Minneapolis, Seattle, Portland, and other major cities. At the same time, he blamed BLM, Antifa, and the Democratic Party, and appealed, frequently in all caps, to “law and order.”
This approach did not pay off, however. Recall the situation in the months preceding the 2020 election. Major cities were on high alert for riots in case of a Trump victory. When I visited Washington, D.C., the week prior to Election Day, entire city blocks were barricaded; luxury stores had boarded up their windows; BLM- and Antifa-associated militants promised violence if voters didn’t opt for a change of power. The Left was putting the pressure on, and it seemed to me that voters supported Biden in part to put an end to the chaos. In other words, for the Left, the rachet worked. The threat of continued violence paid an electoral dividend—and it offers left-wing agitators a strong incentive to repeat the performance in 2024.
How might the politics of a riot season unfold next year?