'This Is Pretty Ugly, and It's Gonna Be the Norm'

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

That’s Chris Matthews during his narration of the long taping of last Friday’s violent scene at the cancelled Trump event in Chicago. “Look at this,” he says, “judge for yourself”:

A reader, Brendan Reid, addresses the part of our discussion about brainstorming the most effective ways to protest Trump, such as silent sit-ins or video campaigns that use Trump’s own words against him. Brendan has a creative suggestion:

Like all decent people, I’ve been scratching my head on how we stop the rise of Drumpf. Then I remembered this article from last year about how this nice little German town couldn’t get a bunch of goose-stepping neo-Nazis to stop holding their annual march in the town’s main street. The more the residents protested, the more wingnuts would come, planning their family vacations around the annual show of strength and the titillation of potential violence. Sound familiar?

So the protestors came up with a brilliant solution, a way to use the hate against the haters.

They turned the rally into a sponsored walkathon! Without the wingnuts’ knowledge, local residents and businesses sponsored the participants of the march, and for every meter they walked, they were inadvertently raising money for an anti-extremist charity.

So ‘Merca! We should turn Drumpf protests into sponsored walkathons where sponsors donate a dollar for every Drumpf supporter at a rally to raise money for a good cause. We get John Oliver, Stewart, Bernie, and all good people to hype the hell out of it. Then when Trump hypes the number of participants, we can just take him at his word and raise millions!

Heh. You can sign Brendan’s petition here. Another reader zooms out a little:

I’ve emailed you a few times before, on subjects like micro-aggressions and the general direction of Feminism. (I would have sent my thoughts on the incident at Oberlin if the opportunity had presented itself—although all that needed to be said about that surely was.) I’m emailing you about this topic because I, as someone who has criticized the ideology, tactics, and indeed the sanity of today’s left, assign the protesters exactly zero responsibility for this.

This is all on Donald Trump, and on the resentful, entitled and remarkably ignorant people who go to his rallies. I might have a different opinion if the situation weren’t so singular, and so stark. I disapprove entirely of the “shut it down” approach to protesting, as a rule. It is a censorious tactic, and one that reeks of thoughtless zealotry and self-aggrandizement. I support the right of any people, no matter how vile one may consider their ideas to be, to peaceably assemble and rally without being shut down by a mob.

But these are no peaceful protests, and I would suggest that they may have gone beyond the boundaries of the 1st Amendment which, while protecting nearly all speech, does not grant the right to incite violence. Determining whether speech is merely blustery rhetoric or genuine incitement is always tricky, but much less so here. Mr Trump is—to borrow a phrase I heard recently—bringing a lighted match into a fireworks factory. When a young man charged in his direction and was dragged off by the police (a threatening action for which he was rightly removed), Trump tossed out a line about him being in ISIS, a charge which was apparently based on a hoax video online.

Trump’s comments on this were truly batty—and notice how he even implies that Chuck Todd is unpatriotic:

Back to our reader:

Subsequently, when John McGraw sucker punched a young black man at a rally, he defended the action by speculating that he could have been in ISIS, and they may have to kill him next time they see him.

The through-line is clear: These rallies are full of people who are full of fear and rage directed towards an amorphous enemy, which while incoherent to many, seems utterly clear to them. Donald Trump is loading a gun and pointing it at a target; he is in large measure to blame if and when that gun goes off. That violence has already erupted in the way that it has is no accident.

I think the manner of the protests was unwise. The protesters put themselves in unnecessary danger, and both the manner and the reality of their presence could bring nothing good about. That being said, any physical violence done towards them is unwarranted no matter what. I would urge all to respond to even the nastiest speech with cogent argument, but how do you argue with a fist? I would have preferred if that the activists had employed a different approach, but I understand these young, mostly minority protesters. They’re enraged and afraid at what they’re seeing and hearing and, unlike the frothing bigots who flock to Trump rallies, they may have every reason to be.

Here’s one more reader, who suggests that the rise of Trump is the inevitable result of reelecting a transformative president like Barack Obama:

This is a fascinating debate; each reader slightly shifts my view. However, I think it’s slightly skewed via us on the left (perhaps not really the left, just to the left of the current GOP and Trump) not willing to accept a bit of an uncomfortable truth: of course we’ve fed this beast. It’s not a matter of wanting to or not. A sizable chunk of the American polity has been catered to and has developed an idea (an ever-reinforced idea over the past few decades, at that) of what America is. Their political leverage has been severely compromised in the Obama era. Did anyone think there wouldn’t be blowback? This is the price of Change. It is not orderly, and it’s scarcely even coherent.

Whether we like it or not, the rise of a younger, more diverse, more liberal bloc of voters has pushed against the old guard. The old guard is pissed as a result, and has looked for an instrument to express that sentiment. It’s not like the newer political coalition planned to piss them off, but the very existence of a challenge to established norms was always going to draw the ire of those who had a prime seat at the table.

Trump is like lightning striking a forest. One does not reason with the ensuing fire. Apportioning blame is beside the point. You put out the fire.

Let’s hope it’s not fueled by this new approach from Obama:

It’s a distinct shift from his tone against Trump a month ago:

Which approach do you think is more effective? Drop me an email if you’d like to elaborate.