The hotly contested 2016 Presidential election erupted in violence on Friday, as protestors and supporters clashed at a Trump rally in Chicago. The event was soon cancelled due to security concerns and fears of more violence in the future.
"The rise of Trump is just the latest in a long tradition of the US establishment drawing on the fears of citizens over their safety to impede the progress of genuine change."
While the scale of the disruption may be new, the violence is by no means new. Threatening rhetoric from the candidate himself and physical intimidation by his followers have characterized Trump’s campaign. For many these acts were therefore a justified defense to this escalating and increasingly systematic violence.
Indeed despite Trump’s vocal renunciation of these actions, there is a growing belief that his campaign actually tactically uses violence to his political advantage. Rachel Maddow from MSNBC noted the “political utility” of this violence for Trump, noting “the classic strongman political tactic of ginning up political violence in order for a politician to present that violence as a problem that needs to be solved.”
What this critique misses, however, is that status quo also capitalizes on such fear. In fact the strategic reliance on extremist violence to keep exploited and vulnerable populations in line is a hallmark of mainstream American politics. The rise of Trump is just the latest in a long tradition of the US establishment drawing on the fears of citizens over their safety to impede the progress of genuine change.
An American History of Violent Peace
Both the Right and the Left have roundly criticized Donald Trump for exploiting retrogressive values of racism and xenophobia. Underlying the sensationalism of his attacks against women and minorities is a dangerous trend of directing popular anger at society’s most threatened members.
In perhaps the most provocative moment of this election cycle, Trump was condemned for not immediately disavowing David Duke and the Klu Klux Klan. While he would do so publicly later, this seemed to show the dark and extremist underbelly of Trump’s movement.
"More than simply repudiating the extremism of Trump, we must also reject the attempt by Centrists to define what is possible in the name of progress."
Nevertheless history should not be forgotten. The terrorism of the Klu Klux Klan was part of a broader Jim Crow strategy for intimidating and repressing blacks throughout the country. Most obviously, it justified a “respectable” politics of institutionalized racism where segregation was legitimized as necessary to maintain “law and order”.
Just as importantly - though less acknowledged - is that such violence channeled calls for more radical change into more “pragmatic” reform policies. Especially significant given Sanders’ continued celebration of FDR is how the New Deal often excluded blacks and other minorities out of its “universal” social welfare programs for reasons of political “practicality” and due to fears of popular racist violence.
Undoubtedly Trump has benefited from the violence his hate filled rhetoric has helped to stir up. Yet it is crucial to recognize that so too have his “respectable” Republican and Democratic mainstream opponents. This represents a broader American history of violent peace.
Standing up to a Politics of Fear
The recent events in Chicago present an important historical opportunity and we should be resolute in refusing to cave into a politics of fear so often used by both Liberals and Conservatives that aims to preserve an unjust status quo. More than simply repudiating the extremism of Trump, we must also reject the attempt by Centrists to define what is possible in the name of progress.
"The campaigns of Hillary Clinton and John Kasich perhaps best exemplify this violent pragmatism. Each represent in their respective parties the treading on the fear of extremist to promote an establishment agenda of at best reform and at worst more of the same. Underpinning their rhetoric of reconciliation is a veiled threat that if they are not elected there will be more violence to come."
Tellingly, Trump has been continually accused of being a fascist throughout this campaign. This comparison makes perfect historical sense. He is a modern demagogue who exploits the economic insecurities and prejudices of his followers for his own political ends. Further, he comes perilously close to speaking the language of race-based authoritarianism in his calls, for instance, to ban all Muslims from entering into the country.
However, this constant and now largely accepted charge of Trump’s fascism also reflects a quite reactionary Liberal discourse of “pragmatism” over progress. It implicitly presents the current order as flawed but safe and Centrist politicians as the torchbearers for inclusion and justice. Hidden is the country’s own legacy of terroristic violence and its strategic employment by mainstream politician both past and present.
The campaigns of Hillary Clinton and John Kasich perhaps best exemplify this violent pragmatism. Each represent in their respective parties the treading on the fear of extremist to promote an establishment agenda of at best reform and at worst more of the same. Underpinning their rhetoric of reconciliation is a veiled threat that if they are not elected there will be more violence to come.
The protesting and shutting down of the Trump rally thus potentially symbolized something far greater than challenging modern day extremism. It was an effort to stand up this updated politics of fear in order to break down historic mainstream barriers to progress.
Fighting a Dangerous Establishment
In the wake of the Chicago protest, Bernie Sanders responded by forcefully reminding voters of the differences between his campaign and Trumps. He tweeted “We will continue to bring people together. We will not allow the Donald Trumps of the world to divide us up.”
"The attempt to end physical intimidation through further intimidation is ethically suspect and politically unproductive."
It was widely reported that protestors where chanting Sanders name at the event. Their presence, however, was not mere meeting violence with violence. It was also putting front and center that for many people the status quo threatens their safety. It was especially revealing that this occurred in Chicago as its upcoming primary is occurring against the backdrop of an over year long protest movement against the city’s Clinton-backed Democratic Mayor Rahm Emanuel over charges of perpetuating and covering up endemic police brutality against its black residents.
Significantly, the attempt to end physical intimidation through further intimidation is ethically suspect and politically unproductive. That approach feeds into the violent desires of extremists and the fear tactics of the status quo. If they are not directed toward the democratic pursuit of progressive goals, these actions invite further reaction and work against the construction of a mass popular movement for systematic social change.
The direct resistance to Trump and his supporters must go beyond an attack on American extremism. It must also set its sights on an American history of violent peace and the mainstream politicians who so readily profit from it. The goal should be to democratically build a new progressive order out of the ashes of the nation’s dangerous establishment.