In San Jose on Thursday, a volatile crowd outside a Donald Trump rally assaulted numerous attendees. They punched a man in the face, knocking him to the ground; bloodied another man by bludgeoning the side of his head with a duffel bag; trapped a woman against a glass door, pelting her with an egg and other objects; snatched a cap off a man’s head, lighting it afire on the street soon afterward; and perpetrated other hateful acts against total strangers, with many fellow protesters cheering them on and a brave few fervently pleading for nonviolence.
The bad actors in San Jose should be arrested, prosecuted, jailed, and broadly condemned. In addition to attacking fellow human beings, they did violence to the shared right to assemble. They assaulted the American inheritance of a politics that is decided peaceably at the ballot box by the people, not in the streets through force or intimidation.
By using the preferred approach of the Donald Trump supporter who infamously sucker punched a peaceful protester, another execrable actor who ought to serve jail time for his inexcusable thuggery, San Jose’s violent anti-Trump protesters offered a reminder that beyond left and right, conservative and liberal, pro-Trump and anti-Trump, there is a broad majority of Americans who intuitively understand the peril of abiding violence in politics—who understand that it would ultimately empower the most thuggish, ruthless, impulsive sociopaths—and that it is vital to stand together on that point, now and forever after, if on nothing else.
All that would be true regardless of the horse-race implications of Thursday’s violence. It is nevertheless worth noting the likely effects of the violence. The San Jose anti-Trump protesters, like the violent anti-Trump protesters in Costa Mesa before them, more likely helped than hurt the odds of Trump being elected president.
Phone videos of Mexican flags waving as Trump supporters are attacked will fuel nativist anxieties about immigration as well as hate-group fundraising.
White supremacists were undoubtedly smiling as they read the news.
In a week with headlines about Trump University’s shockingly unethical behavior, old footage of Trump telling a TV interviewer that he got furious at his former wife when she didn’t have dinner on the table when he got home, and the revelation that Trump failed to make good on a pledge to a veteran’s charity until the press called him on it, San Jose’s protesters managed to do the one thing that would give Trump supporters, if not the candidate himself, moral high ground in anything.
Here’s how I put it a month ago in a piece titled, “Hard Truths About How to Beat Donald Trump”:
At anti-Trump protests, eschew violence and any other behavior that helps his cause.
The activist left is very antagonistic to “respectability politics,” which Wikipedia defines as “attempts by marginalized groups to police their own members and show their social values as compatible with mainstream values rather than challenging the mainstream for its failure to accept difference.”
Since nonviolence is a value held dear by large majorities on the activist left, not a mainstream value it rejects, efforts to keep anti-Trump protests as peaceful as possible are not at all inconsistent with rejecting respectability politics.
They’re a no-brainer.
Results-oriented activists should go a step farther. If organizers at anti-Trump rallies did their utmost to keep Mexican flags out of the hands of activists and to have as many American flags waving as possible that may or may not constitute respectability politics. Labels aside, that tactic would significantly increase the chance that a given rally will help the anti-Trump cause and significantly decrease the chance that a given rally will harm the anti-Trump cause. All who regard preventing the empowerment of a demagogue who pits his supporters against Mexicans and Muslims as a hugely important goal should prioritize its achievement.
All that said, any reader of mine who is tempted to react to violence by a tiny subset of Trump opponents by supporting the candidate himself should understand that not only have Trump supporters engaged in violence on multiple occasions—two beat and urinated on a homeless man while saying “Trump was right”—the candidate himself has, on other occasions, explicitly encouraged violence, unlike Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders or Gary Johnson or Jill Stein or any other credible candidate for the presidency in my lifetime. “Maybe he should have been roughed up,” Trump said of one verbal dissenter who was beaten at one of his rallies. On another occasion, he declared that he missed the old days when people saying nasty things at political rallies would “be carried out on a stretcher.”
And that Trump supporter who sucker-punched a protester at a rally? Trump later told a journalist that his people were looking into the possibility of paying the man’s legal fees. If you looked upon the scene in San Jose with disgust at the outbreak of political violence in America, as we all should, it is vital to grasp that while there are violent people who support and oppose every candidate, the only candidate irresponsible enough to advocate for political violence has been Donald Trump.
The civic responsibility to reject political violence is therefore both a strong reason for everyone to reject Trump and occasion for the activist left to take stock of its coalition and prepare for the future anti-Trump protests that are and ought to be ahead. Addressing the parts of the activist left who acted as apologists for San Jose on social media, the libertarian journalist Jesse Walker offered this critique on Twitter:
The great tacticians of Twitter think random attacks on rally-goers are a reenactment of the Battle of Cable Street. Looks more like the Days of Rage to me, with all the ridiculous posturing that implies. (Look up David Dellinger's critique of the Days of Rage sometime. D-E-L-L-I-N-G-E-R. Not a hippie-puncher.)
I'll skip past the moral critique of such tactics. They'll just call it bourgeois sentimentality and we'll get nowhere. I'll also ignore the more hard-nosed question of whether the "optics" will "help Trump." (I mean, they obviously do help Trump. That's how polarization politics works. But set it aside.) And for the sake of argument, we'll stipulate that Trump's a fascist. Maybe he is. He certainly veers toward it & could get there.
You know who isn't a fascist? Most of the people who go hear him speak.
I've covered several of these rallies. Saw some ugliness. But the offline crowds aren't the same as the online Trump troll mob. Which is to say: I encountered some genuine Nazis, but mostly I met the sort of people who dug Perot 24 years ago… and have now convinced themselves Trump is a worthy vessel for their grievances. Could any of them become brownshirts?
People like them have before.
Right now they haven't. Aiming at them is just acting out. You're making the closest, weakest scapegoats your target. (And feeding their fears.) And with what endgame? You want, what, people to be too physically scared to go to a Trump rally? OK, they'll just go to the polls then.
Thursday’s violence erupted in a left-leaning part of the country that likes to think of itself as unusually tolerant. And yet, would its residents feel safe wearing a Trump 2016 t-shirt around San Francisco or Oakland or San Jose? People in the Bay Area regularly—and often rightly—urge other parts of the country that are intolerant toward different people in different ways to engage in introspection and improve their community.
How many will do anything to respond to the fact that yesterday, at a political rally in their community, some of their neighbors got beat up merely for attending?