Has Donald Trump brought new whiff of violence to US politics?
Modes of political thought
The North Carolina incident where a protester punched in the mouth by a Trump supporter isn’t isolated. Other Trump protesters have been roughed up and forcibly expelled. Reporters are targets too.
The young black protester at the Trump rally never saw it coming. The punch hit him on the right side of the face and sent him reeling across the aisle. He’d been leaving the building, escorted by sheriff’s deputies, yelling at the crowd. A supporter of Mr. Trump – white, older, and wearing a cowboy hat – decided to silence him with a fist.
That’s what videos of the Wednesday incident in Fayetteville, N.C., show in any case. It’s a tempting metaphor, right? Black versus white. Youth versus age. Trump fan versus anti-Trump activist.
The problem is it’s not just a metaphor. It’s also a real-life situation whose meaning is on its surface.
Trump’s candidacy for president attracts people who are angry enough to threaten others. That may be because Trump himself is unpredictable and prone to aggressive outbursts. Yet the United States system of government is based on a complicated system of balances and shared authority. Different groups have to cooperate to make it run. In America, you can’t punch your way to power.
Washington is jammed up enough as it is. What’s going to happen if we add the whiff of violence to the mix?
The North Carolina incident wasn’t isolated. Other Trump protesters have been roughed up and forcibly expelled. Reporters are targets too. According to an eyewitness account from a Washington Post reporter, on Tuesday Trump’s campaign manager Corey Lewandowski yanked another journalist out of Trump’s path by grabbing her arm, hard enough to leave bruises.
The Trump campaign denies the incident occurred.
Overall, journalists are worried that the atmosphere at Trump rallies is getting out of hand. In a highly unusual move, the White House Correspondents Association on Thursday issued a statement asking for calm, though it didn’t mention Trump by name.
“Broadly speaking, the WHCA unequivocally condemns any act of violence or intimidation against any journalist covering the 2016 campaign, whether perpetrated by a candidate’s supporters, staff or security officers. We expect that all the contenders for the nation’s highest office agree that this would be unacceptable,” said the White House correspondents group.
Yet Trump hasn’t forcibly condemned supporter violence. If anything he’s appeared to condone it. “I’d like to punch him in the face,” Trump said of one protester at a February rally. Asked at Thursday night’s GOP debate whether he’s to blame for the most recent rally assault, Trump said he hoped not. Then he said in essence that the protesters deserve it.
“We have some protesters who are bad dudes, they have done bad things.... They’ve got to be taken out, to be honest. I mean, we have to run something,” Trump said.
The real estate billionaire is also pushing a strong-arm approach on policy. Perhaps that helps the rowdy atmosphere develop. He’s not just opposed to illegal immigration – he’s going to shut it off entirely with a wall that will be free because Mexico will pay for it. The US will seize Middle East oil to pay for its military operations in the region. Other countries are “laughing at our stupidity” on trade, and he’ll make them cry instead.
His opponents aren’t just wrong; they’re contemptible. Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida is “Little Marco.” Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas is “Lyin’ Ted.”
This is not a form of political speech. It is a form of antipolitical speech. As New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote last month, politics is a way of governing divided societies without undue violence. It’s a muddled activity in which disappointment is normal.
Trump is promising his voters that they won’t have to be disappointed. In that sense he may be just the culmination of the rise of movements opposed to the norms of Washington deal-making. The tea party is the most obvious example of such a movement, according to Mr. Brooks, but this sensibility is not limited to the right side of the political spectrum.
“Ultimately, they don’t recognize other people,” Brooks wrote. “They suffer from a form of political narcissism, in which they don’t accept the legitimacy of other interests and opinions. They don’t recognize restraints. They want total victories for themselves and their doctrine.”
However, Trump’s support is widely spread. While many Trump voters are lower-income, less-educated white men, they come from all demographics, from high-income suburban women to some self-identified Democrats.
What unites them? That’s a question that has yet to be definitively answered. But one likely suspect is authoritarianism. To political scientists, “authoritarianism” is a personality trait that is defined by a predilection for order and a fear of outsiders. In some studies, Trump voters score high on an authoritarian scale.
In any case, the “A” word seems apropos in the case of the punched protester. Local police have identified the puncher as one John McGraw. On Thursday, Mr. McGraw was charged with assault and disorderly conduct, according to the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office.
Following his attack on the protester, McGraw returned to his seat, while bystanders congratulated him. Approached by a reporter, McGraw said he’d enjoyed hitting “that big mouth.”
“We don’t know who he is, but we know he’s not acting like an American,” said McGraw, according to footage from the syndicated show “Inside Edition.” “The next time we see him, we might have to kill him.”