Although supporters, opponents, bloggers and observers of all sorts throw the word “movement” around to describe Donald Trump’s candidacy, so far it’s been about nothing more than a dyed and bloated real estate magnate. At least once, local toughs cited Trump when they beat a homeless man in Boston, but mostly actual violence has been confined to the candidate’s events–at least so far. And, at least so far, it all works for Trump.
A candidate’s event is a great place for activists to organize to advance their claims. Someone else has already gathered a local audience and the press, and the possibilities for drama and even discussion abound. An activist might be able to ask a question, drawing attention to favored issues, maybe even eliciting a position from a candidate. If not, activists may elicit an unforced error that affects the campaign. See, for example, Occupy Charleston’s hijacking of a Michele Bachmann event in 2012.
Flustered, Rep. Bachmann left the premises. Senator Bernie Sanders did a little better last year: when Black Lives Matter activists seized the podium at a rally in Seattle, Sanders left the stage and worked the crowd. He then worked over the next months, with some success, to incorporate the movement’s concerns into his message.
The point is that there’s nothing new, unusual, or unAmerican about protests at a political event. A successful candidate, particularly one who claims to want to unify the American people, needs to find ways to deal with dissent at the grassroots. Typically, this involves some combination of policing, keeping protesters far from the stage, and engagement, taking questions and holding meetings with political opponents.
From the start, Donald Trump promised something different. He tagged Sanders’s response to protesters as a sign of the senator’s weakness, promising that he–or “his people”–would dispense with opponents more quickly and vigorously. This is one promise the candidate has kept. Egged on by Trump, both paid security and vigorous attendees at his rallies, have attacked protesters, and Trump’s staff has confined, ridiculed, and attacked (not only verbally) members of the press. Even at the beginning of his campaign, Trump required those who might attend his events to pledge allegiance–to the candidate, not the flag. He himself has pledged that, if elected, to make it harder for the press to criticize people (him) unfairly (not defined). Thin skin has never previously been a prerequisite for the presidency.
But the violence. Much more than specific promises about matters of policy, Trump is selling himself as a man of action. The solution to America’s problems, he promises, starts with a gold T. Both he and his few identifiable advisers have tried to allay voters’ fears by emphasizing that the candidate isn’t committed to anything he now commits to in the heat of the campaign–even populist racist xenophobia. So it’s all his persona and action.
Social scientists know about a campaign based on the promise of exceptional personal characteristics and action; Max Weber called it “charismatic authority” ( for more, you can watch an academic lecture or read Wikipedia). Importantly, social scientists see charisma as contextual, rather than as something that comes from individual characteristics. Charismatic authority is inherently unstable and thrives during turbulent times. The charismatic leader rules only as long as he delivers on the aspirations of those who support him. For this reason, Trump has been stalwart in emphasizing how awful everything is and how dangerous the world is and how stupid everyone else is. Partly, he’s better on the attack than in outlining alternatives or preferred policies. But even more than that, it’s clear that few people would be willing throw in with someone who obviously lacks all of the qualities for the job he seeks unless times were truly desperate. Stoking the threat of terror and enemies without and within all helps candidate Trump.
Violence, and even more the threat of violence, supports this vision of the now. Trump rallies are fun, the candidate promises, because anything can happen. Identifying the enemy nearby, a protester brave enough to hold a sign or scream, or a pen of reporters who claim to care about telling the truth, generates the tension that he needs to offer an appeal. Some supporters attend thinking that they might get a chance to haul off and smack the enemy, but even more come just to see what might happen.
Now the challenge is whether Republicans who claim to value civility and democracy and recognize the threat Trump represents are willing and able to do something about it. But soon the responsibility is likely to shift to more of us. In the meantime, the people who take protest about this candidate to his rallies are on the front lines.