Political Violence in the Era of Trump

What do the violent attacks of Trump protesters on Trump supporters reveal?

Stephen Lam / Reuters

An outbreak of violence at a rally for presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump in San Jose, California on Thursday touched off arguments about utility, legality, and moral rightness of political violence. My colleague Conor Friedersdorf argues that anti-Trump protesters should be “arrested, prosecuted, jailed, and broadly condemned” for their attacks, and his prescription to uphold our “civic responsibility to reject political violence” is for protesters to be peaceful, patient, and rise above the fray.

That might work in theory, but what happens when the fray consumes the system? The message inherent to nonviolence is that peaceful democratic institutions are better routes for protest than violence, both morally and practically. So far, however, democratic institutions have not stopped the rise of Trump, who has become the presidential nominee of a party that has been a pillar of America’s democratic institutions for over 160 years. That would not be as dire a dilemma for protesters if they simply found Trump personally objectionable. But his platform undermines the rights of millions, from early proposals to ban Muslims from entering the country to a potential repeal of birthright citizenship. Why should the people who he proposes to victimize and marginalize trust democratic institutions to protect them from Trump, when those very systems have delivered him the nomination and could soon see him to the White House?

This is what Donald Trump and his supporters have wrought. Violence is reflected with violence, and both actions and reactions signal the crumbling of democratic institutions and an erosion of faith in them. My colleague Peter Beinart correctly predicted in March, after a rash of violent clashes, that the campaign season “will get more violent” as it continues. It will probably be worse in October than it is in June.

The central premise of a Trump presidency is violence, and the coercive threat of violence: building a wall and intimidating Mexico into paying for it, banning immigrants based on religion, expanding the country’s already-expansive deportation protocol, and punishing women for abortions. His rhetoric has been explicitly linked by prominent Republicans with tragedies such as the Charleston massacre. That the candidate himself regularly speaks threateningly about women and minorities and has prescribed violence at his own events are not facts ancillary to his candidacy, but core features of its appeal. A vote for Donald Trump is, among other things, a vote for a wide promulgation of violence.

For many anti-Trump protesters––who may be of Mexican descent––this man who calls Mexican immigrants rapists and threatens the ability of those immigrants to feed their families is not some faceless bigot, but an existential threat. Although he has recently backed away from some of the more controversial human-rights violations in his platform, Trump’s recent racist attacks against Judge Gonzalo Curiel illustrate that bigotry is his primary mode. A justified fear of Trump does not justify violence against an individual just trying to leave a rally. But any prescription for ending political violence must deal with the fact that Trump directs and wields violence, often through his supporters, in ways that upend peaceful means of political discourse.

Again, this contemplation of Trumpian violence does not absolve a person who throws eggs from the consequences of that act. But it does counter the idea, expressed by Conor, that political violence can be conquered if one side rises above the fray and refuses to engage. It counters the objectionable creep of respectability politics, that has led some to call on peaceful protesters to abandon Mexican flags so as to not provide ammunition for Trump’s nativist narrative. For decades, people have used a watered-down formulation of Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolence to uniquely burden the powerless with the task of maintaining peace against violent powerful actors. But even Kingian nonviolence was a strategy that itself acknowledged a certain utility in violence; a utility that it rejected, but a utility nonetheless. Moreover, Kingian nonviolence prescribed civil disobedience––mass lawbreaking––as a way to circumvent the uselessness of state-sponsored systems of discourse and to question their legitimacy. Would those who propose nonviolence also commit to supporting massive, disruptive acts of civil disobedience?

Nonviolence becomes a cudgel against the oppressed when violent people in power require those without power to adopt it as the sole way of reacting to violence. And the oppression that many people fear from Trump is real and present. The word “fascist” is now regularly applied to Donald Trump—not just by liberals, but by his conservative critics. That suggestion, even if it proves hyperbolic, should chill anyone seriously dedicated to freedom, especially those who already live on the margins of America. Violence is not the answer to that chill. But democracy and nonviolence don’t seem to be working too well, either.

The way to restore peace is not just to condemn protesters,​ but to restore faith in the efficacy of democratic institutions—to show that violence and bigotry won’t be tolerated. If more of those who rushed to condemn the ​protesters​ in San Jose had been equally ​vocal​ earlier in the cycle, when violence first flared at Trump rallies, it ​might not have become so widespread.​​ Or perhaps, even earlier, when Trump began his campaign of rhetorical violence that spawned the physical violence of his rallies.

In the end, the people most equipped to end violence are those who use violence in the service of power, not those who resist it. Trump is not yet an agent of the state, and his platform seems to contravene many of the rights outlined in the Constitution, and the principles that America professes. But he could be. He represents a very possible future of violence. The easiest way—probably the only way—to limit further violence is for Trump to either become less violent or for his supporters to support someone less violent. Unless, of course, violence is the point.