A Culture of Violence: Donald Trump and the Politics of Extremism (blog post for John Morton Center for North American Studies, 2016)

Speaking to a cheering audience as security personnel physically ejected a protester from a rally in Las Vegas on February 22, 2016, Donald Trump proudly asserted:

“I love the old days. You know what they used to do to guys like that when they were in a place like this? They’d be carried out in a stretcher, folks. Yeah, it’s true. I’d like to punch him in the face, I’ll tell ya…”

What good old days is Trump referring to and how does such spectacle and violence fit into his vision of “making America great again”?

Donald Trump sees violence as being good for his campaign. The act of physically throwing people out of his events is part of the show. However, the violence has been escalating and taking on new forms. On March 9, a white Trump supporter named John McGraw sucker-punched a Black protestor named Rakeem Jones at a rally, later stating, “the next time we see him, we might have to kill him.” Trump addressed the issue by offering to pay McGraw’s legal fees. Most notably, Trump cancelled a rally on Friday, March 11, in Chicago, culminating in violent clashes between supporters and protestors.

Critics argue that Trump is at least partially responsible for the violence at campaign events. Conservative commentators, for their part, blame liberals for antagonizing and taunting Trump supporters and trying to silence their voices. But who exactly is being silenced? Trump’s “silent majority” is largely made up of middle-aged whites without a college education, people who grew up in the 1960s when only 4.7% of the population was foreign born (the lowest proportion ever). Their desire to “Make America Great Again” harkens back to an early twentieth century nativism that is threatening to destabilize the presidential cycle and even democratic society itself. Indeed, the so-called golden age of middle class America in the early 1960s that many disgruntled baby boomers want to return to was only made possible by immigration restrictions that began in the 1920s. That model proved unsustainable, and the nativist rhetoric was no less racist and undemocratic at that time than it is now.

Still, just how new is such violence in mainstream American politics? The best point of comparison is the presidential election of 1968, the most violent election year in recent American history, which saw the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, race riots, antiwar protests, and clashes between police and protestors at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The Democratic Party was splitting apart at that time and needed to find a new direction. Now, the Republican Party is fighting to hold itself together. In an interview with Rachel Maddow, news correspondent Dan Rather contends that Donald Trump’s political message resonates strongly with that of George Wallace, a third-party candidate (American Independent Party) in the 1968 presidential election. Wallace, a southern politician who supported segregation, appealed to alienated white voters and was known for his angry denouncements of hippies, the Supreme Court, and big government. Still, Trump is not George Wallace. While Trump, too, is a conservative who has said that he would not be opposed to running on a third-party ticket if need be (though this may not still be the case), what is different about Trump is that he is a businessman and not a career politician. He sows political divisions for his own benefit without acknowledging the extent to which such divisiveness threatens to revisit some of the worst aspects of violence in the 1960s. Not having been in politics before, his positions on more complex policy issues are not known. For now, that seems to be an advantage, especially among those always suspicious of big government and bureaucratic incompetence in the public sector.

 

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Trump_Cancels_Chicago_Rally_As_Clashes_Break_Out.webmhd.webm

 

Eight years ago, Barack Obama campaigned on the theme of hope, and yet, now, a sizable group on the political left combined with right-wing anger undermine this message of unity. While is it nothing new that Americans are politically divided and even polarized on many issues, especially during election season, we have entered a phase in which such emotions are erupting in violence. Do such violent episodes help Trump’s campaign and will his campaign evolve into organized violence? The consensus judgment in the media, based on polling and on-the-ground reporting, is that the confrontations last week in Fayetteville, North Carolina, St. Louis, Missouri, and Chicago, Illinois, combined with the most recent angry clashes in the last few days in Utah, Arizona, and New York, may offend some potential voters, but they will excite those already most committed the Trump movement. In fact, Trump’s poll numbers have been climbing of late in direct relation to the harshness of his rhetoric. His campaign has not yet faltered, even as he has insulted Hispanics, Muslims, and other minorities, a Vietnam-era POW, the Bush presidency, and women. Still, the more extreme his base becomes in silencing dissenting voices, the more difficult it may become for him to reach beyond that base in a general election. The climate of heightened tension may in fact help undo his campaign more than anything else.