What will happen to American politics if, as now appears likely, the Republican Party nominates Donald Trump? Here’s one bet: It will get more violent.
The United States is headed toward a confrontation, the likes of which it has not seen since 1968, between leftist activists, who believe in physical disruption as a means of drawing attention to injustice, and a candidate eager to forcibly put down that disruption in order to make himself look tough. The new culture of physical disruption on the activist left stems partly from disillusionment with Barack Obama. In 2008, Obama’s election sparked unprecedented excitement among young progressives. But that excitement was followed by deep disillusionment as it became clear that even a liberal black president could not remedy the structural injustices afflicting people of color.
So Millennial activists began challenging politicians directly. In June 2012, two protesters connected with the National Immigrant Youth Alliance occupied the Obama campaign’s Denver office for six days and threatened further takeovers unless the president stopped deporting the young undocumented immigrants dubbed “Dreamers.” Two months later, activists for undocumented immigrants sought to disrupt the Democratic convention in Charlotte.
A year later, the Black Lives Matter movement was born in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman for killing Trayvon Martin.
When BLM protesters began disrupting Democratic events and Republican events…:
After some initial hesitation and defensiveness, Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley, and Hillary Clinton reacted to these disruptions by meeting with activists and embracing much of their agenda. Most Republican candidates ignored the protests as best they could.
But Donald Trump saw them as an opportunity. Asked last August about a Bernie Sanders event in which Black Lives Matters protesters spoke at length from the stage, Trump called the senator from Vermont’s response “disgusting.” He added: “That will never happen with me! I don’t know if I’ll do the fighting myself or other people will, but that was a disgrace. I felt badly for him. But it showed that he was weak. Believe me, that’s not going to happen to Trump.”
It’s no coincidence that Trump raised the specter of violence. The Black Lives Matter disruptions had been peaceful. But as Trump’s campaign took off in the summer and fall of last year, he began depicting entire categories of overwhelmingly peaceful people as a physical threat. Undocumented Mexican immigrants were potential “rapists.” Syrian refugees were “strong, powerful men” who might be a “trojan horse” for ISIS.
Beinart goes on to say that if Trump gets the GOP nomination, the left-wing militants are going to keep pushing, and Trump will urge his supporters to push back hard. This is not going to end well. I think he’s right to be worried. Me, I say if you had fun at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, you’re going to love the GOP 2016 convention in Cleveland.
It is undeniable that there is more than a bit of the Brownshirt about Trump. What drives me crazy is that the Left and its Business Republican fellow travelers cannot grasp that Trumpian violence is largely (but not entirely!) a reaction to violence and destruction that has been inflicted by them on many of Trump’s supporters for a long time. This is not, please understand me, to justify Trumpian violence, but to explain it. As ever, the Left, as well as right-thinking folks on the Right, are so convinced of their own righteousness that they don’t understand what’s happening. I’m not convinced that I do either, not fully, but here’s an attempt.
For some time I have said in this space that people who embrace racialist thinking when it occurs among blacks and other minorities should be careful about that sort of thing, because “Black Lives Matter” (and its cognates among other minority groups) inevitably conjures up white consciousness and power movements. This makes no emotional sense to many middle-class, educated people — most of them white, note well — who naturally embrace a double standard. This is why you have the white corporate manager who talks breezily about “embracing diversity,” completely ignoring the fact that this often amounts to legitimizing and moralizing discrimination along racial, gender, and sexual identity grounds. When you seek to hire, promote, or otherwise privilege individuals based on their race, gender, or sexual identity, that is discrimination. In some European countries, they are more honest about it, calling in “positive discrimination” — in other words, discrimination for a socially beneficial reason.
The social beneficence of policies like that are only apparent to those who are not being discriminated against. I have never seen a white corporate manager surrender his job so that a minority can have it. “Social justice,” as they define it, always occurs at the expense of other people.
Thinking about the Beinart piece, I was reminded of a few conversations I’ve had over the past 20 years with white working class people on visits home to Louisiana. On the occasion in which politics and race have come up, if there was somebody present who knew me, they would often make a wisecrack at my expense, saying that I was “liberal” and warning everybody to “watch their language” around me. (Translation: don’t use racist language, because Yankee Boy here won’t like it.) This was a backhanded way of being considerate of my sensibilities, and I appreciated it. But then they would talk about situations in the area, or at the plant, having to do with race and behavior, and it was impossible to deny that there was a real problem present.
I remember one discussion in particular in which white guys who worked at a mill were talking about how aggravating it was to have to do extra work to correct mistakes made by black co-workers who had been hired under the company’s affirmative action plan. These white guys were furious not only that they had to do extra work, but that they could not speak openly about it at work, or be cited by the company for racism. In that conversation was a white working-class woman who gave an example of the same thing happening in her workplace, and who looked at me with visible disdain, as if educated white people like me were somehow to blame for the racial dishonesty they had to live with on the job — this, because their bosses talked like me.
I recall that conversation — must have been 2007 or so — so well because it occurred to me that people of my social and professional class would, in general, not allow ourselves to have conversations like this even in private. In my (white) circles, the difference between conservatives and liberals is that conservatives tended to notice these things, but find ways to euphemize them, even in private conversation, as if noticing them embarrassed us — while liberals, they would not notice them at all, and pass harsh judgment on those who did. In fact, looking down on the white working-class and their racial insensitivity is a way of virtue signaling among white people, both liberals and conservatives. I’ve done it myself.
In recent times, we’ve seen race riots in Ferguson and Baltimore. I think it’s generally well understood that police brutality is a real problem in our country. One strong narrative in the media coverage and cultural conversation about these riots is that they are in some sense justified as “rebellion,” or at least an understandable reaction of frustrated people. And you know what? Critics are right to point out that the difference between a “riot” and a “rebellion” is often a matter of politics. My point is that someone taking their cues from the US media’s discussion of Ferguson and Baltimore would likely conclude that the violence in those places was regrettable, but perfectly understandable, because racism.
Back in 2003, I interviewed a white middle-class homeowner from a neighborhood in Irving, Texas, an inner-ring suburb of Dallas. He was selling his house and moving his family to a better place. His nice, settled neighborhood was becoming unsettled because of illegal immigration. Absentee landlords on his street were renting houses to immigrants, who were piling up in the house — all working-age Latin American men. They were blatantly violating codes, living 20 or more to a single-family house, and being incredibly disruptive. The man decided he had had enough when he came home from work one day and found that the SWAT team had blocked off the street because of yet more trouble from that house. The homeowner got no help from the city. I remember driving to the governmental office and asking the right city officials about that particular house, and that case. The response: they couldn’t do anything about it because the men who lived there stayed away from the house until after the city’s work hours. No code inspector was going to work overtime to go deal with the problem. Too bad for the middle-class homeowners (including Mexican-American citizens) who lived there.
That man was pushed out of his neighborhood by illegal immigration and an unresponsive city government. Was he not in some real sense the victim of violence? Bet it felt that way to him.
This past academic year, there has been an immense amount of attention paid to left-wing activism on campus, most of it inspired by Black Lives Matter. Activists have disrupted campus events, invaded administrative offices, mobbed a library (at Dartmouth), and undertaken a wide variety of illiberal activities towards illiberal ends. And in most cases, they have gotten away with it. Craven administrators have given the kids what they wanted, and in many cases created a climate of fear on campus in which people — white people in particular — who did not agree with the goals or the tactics of the protesters were afraid to speak out for fear of being denounced as racists. Is this not a form of violence? If you are silenced because of legitimate fear of being stigmatized or punished by the mob and its administrative facilitators, it may feel an awful lot like violence to you.
To be sure, words are not the same thing as acts. Maintaining the distinction is critically important. But the double standard in American society over what is permissible to say and to think is real. And Trump speaks to (white) people who are tired of being pushed and pushed and pushed, and told that they have to shut up and take it because they are white and therefore bad, because racism.
It cannot be denied that Trump does attract a significant number of white supremacist followers, people who are racist and anti-Semitic rabble. But the Left (and Business Republicans) have done such a thorough job of politicizing the public square, demonizing dissent and weaponizing the grievance/rights movements, that someone like Trump, who doesn’t give a damn about offending people, can seem a liberating figure.
So, when Black Lives Matter protesters invade a Trump rally and try to disrupt it, why should we be surprised when Trump staff and police throw them out? If right-wing protesters tried to break up a Hillary Clinton rally, they ought to be thrown out too. Bernie Sanders allowed BLM protesters in Seattle to break up his own rally there last year. Conor Friedersdorf, a frequent critic of police brutality, wrote critically of BLM’s action there, and later published an interview with a black woman from Seattle who dissented from his point of view. Excerpt (the speaker is the woman, Martha Tesema):
You write, “I don’t think the boos from the crowd illustrate that its members were racist.” When people are silenced––when a “progressive, liberal” audience attempts to silence a marginalized people––they are not acting in solidarity.
And I am not only talking about the Westlake event, but the broader political conversation happening in this election. No matter how down people say they are with the cause, when they act like being slightly inconvenienced is more important than the lives of people of color, that suggests they probably never truly supported the movement. Marissa, Mara, and allies were not invited. They forced themselves on stage, so the reaction of the crowd was instinctive and understandable, to a certain degree. But if we look deeper at why they chose this provocative way of approaching this Seattle crowd, it says a lot about the urgency of Black Lives Matter and the lack of awareness among this progressive, liberal audience.
The idea that black protesters, and those presuming to speak to them, are so sacred, and their cause is so urgent, that they have a right to silence the voices of others — do you see where this principle takes us? Trump emphatically and specifically rejected the Bernie Sanders approach to this kind of thing (which is to let the loudmouths have their way), calling Sanders “weak” for allowing them to get away with it. Which Sanders certainly was. You don’t have to support Trump — I do not — to recognize that at least he has the guts to stand up for free expression. What a depressing moment when it falls to Donald Trump to defend free speech against its progressive enemies.
In Europe, we see over and over that the weakness of the Establishment politicians of both left and right in the face of the immigration wave and immigrant provocations only empowers the far-right, including bona fide fascists. When reasonable people see those in authority refusing to take a stand against things harmful to their interests, they start to listen to unreasonable, even violent, people. Violence and intolerance calls up violence and intolerance.
Back in 2012, examining studies of the white working class and its despair, Jordan Weissman of The Atlantic wrote:
The question isn’t so much whether these sentiments are misguided. It’s where will people turn to for economic answers when they’ve lost this much trust for the people even somewhat in control? I don’t have an answer for that. I’m not sure anybody does.
Now we know. It’s to Donald J. Trump.
Between now and November, Trump could hold hundreds more rallies, many in areas with large African American and Latino populations, in an atmosphere of mounting hysteria as Election Day nears. The young left-wing militants who have already braved danger in places like Ferguson, and who hold their more conflict-averse elders in contempt, are unlikely to stop their disruptions. Trump will keep baiting and threatening them because it’s how he rouses his fans.
How will Americans react if something truly terrible happens? Given the events of recent months, it’s impossible to know.
As Ross Douthat said the other day (I paraphrase), “If you don’t like the Religious Right, wait till you see the Post-Religious Right.” A right whose spite, resentment, and willingness to engage in violence is not restrained by religious scruple, or by the opinions of “respectable” conservatives like me who don’t work at the mill, and who has not seen my job outsourced, my marriage fall apart, my kids’ lives screwed up, and still have to be told by the media and other white people whose lives are going well that I, with my white privilege, am the problem with the world.
UPDATE: A reader writes:
Not sure if you were watching, or had any interest in watching, the Democratic debate tonight, but when I came across this quote from Bernie Sanders, it hit me like a thunderclap how right you are that poor whites are invisible to cultural elites. That’s certainly true among Republicans, but hoo boy is it true among Democrats, even champion of the people Bernie:
“When you’re white, you don’t know what it’s like to be living in the ghetto. You don’t know what it’s like to be poor.”