WASHINGTON, Nov 23 — The deaths of five people mowed down by a car at a US Christmas parade sent another jolt through a country already convulsed by acts of violence and at war with itself over culture, individual rights and the very notion of democracy.

Sunday’s incident in the Wisconsin city of Waukesha came two days after the acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse, a white teen charged with homicide in the same state after fatally shooting two men during racial justice protests last year 50 miles (80 kilometers) away.

Police believe the driver — a 39-year-old man facing homicide charges — to have been fleeing a domestic dispute, and have not linked the incident to the trial, or to terrorism.

But in the early hours after the tragedy, right-wing online circles filled with unsubstantiated claims the suspect — who is Black — acted in retaliation for the controversial acquittal.

Donald Trump Jr, the outspoken son of the former president, tweeted without evidence that the driver was a “terrorist” left “free to roam the streets while Dems want to throw 17 y/o good samaritans like Kyle Rittenhouse away for life.”

It was the latest flare-up in an increasingly incendiary atmosphere that has riven society amid perceptions of rising crime and freefalling trust in government and institutions.

“Our democracy is in trouble,” Mary Stuckey, a politics professor at Pennsylvania State University, told AFP, warning against the fixation on drama and conflict in public discourse.

Rittenhouse and Arbery

America’s faultlines over race, gun rights and vigilantism have been exposed in a series of high-profile trials in recent weeks — among them the case of Wisconsin teen Rittenhouse, who was acquitted on all charges on Friday, including homicide. 

Rittenhouse claimed self-defense when he shot dead two men and wounded a third during a night of unrest in Kenosha in August 2020.

Meanwhile in Georgia, three white men are facing murder charges in the fatal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man who was jogging in their neighborhood in February 2020.

The trials have pitted gun rights campaigners against opponents who fear that citizens are feeling increasingly emboldened to turn up armed to already volatile situations.

Gun sales soared during the pandemic, with almost 40 million firearms background checks conducted last year, according to the FBI’s database, from 28 million in 2019.

Culture wars

Joe Biden came to the White House promising to heal Washington after one of the most polarising periods in US history under Donald Trump.

But the cultural and political faultlines appear only to have become more profound.

Democrats and Republicans no longer just disagree philosophically about abortion, mask and vaccine mandates, the teaching of slavery and other so-called “culture war” issues — they see themselves as soldiers in an existential struggle.

The average respondent to a poll conducted just before the election by Georgetown University revealed they thought the country was two-thirds towards the “edge of a civil war.”

For media professor Peter Loge, much of the heat seen in political discourse is simply an attempt to turn heads in an era when whipping up your own side is seen as easier than changing minds on the other side.

“Getting a slice of voters’ and viewers’ limited attention and money is hard,” Loge, an associate director in the School of Media at George Washington University, told AFP. 

“Claiming the apocalypse is right around the corner is a good way to get our attention. Fear and division sell.”

Backsliding democracy

The United States has joined an annual list of “backsliding” democracies for the first time, the International IDEA think-tank revealed on Monday.

The report pointed to declines in civil liberties and checks on government, saying the turning point came when Trump began falsely claiming the 2020 election was stolen from him.

“The visible deterioration of democracy in the United States, as seen in the increasing tendency to contest credible election results... is one of the most concerning developments,” said secretary-general Kevin Casas-Zamora.

Although tensions between political factions have been simmering for a long time, the new outrage over elections and their results is a corollary of the rise of misinformation, says Shirley Ann Warshaw, a politics professor at Gettysburg College.

“There is a huge number of underground radical websites, particularly on the right, that are producing information, not news, and that is absolutely inflaming things,” she said.

Rising violence

Major crimes have been trending downward overall but the violent crime rate — including murder, assault, robbery and rape — nudged up 5 per cent from 2019 to 2020.

The murder rate rose an alarming 30 per cent during that period — the largest single-year increase since 1905, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

“You’ve got a society that’s fraught — over economic issues, demography — and then we were living through a nightmarish pandemic,” said David Farber, a history professor at the University of Kansas.

“And again, because Americans are so predisposed to put an ideological and political spin on everything, this is, I think, unprecedented that this public health crisis became a partisan issue.” — AFP