Opinion writer

President Trump and Republicans have adopted a closing electoral strategy that depicts the Democratic Party and “angry” leftist protests against Trumpian rule as the only real reigning threat to our country’s civic fabric and the rule of law. A new Republican National Committee video juxtaposes footage of leading mainstream Democratic figures with that of angry protesters, while decrying “the left” as an “unhinged mob.”

As absurd as this conflation is on its face, it has smuggled itself into the mainstream debate, where it is getting a quasi-respectful hearing, in the form of a public argument over whether Democrats are “going low,” or tacitly egging on their voters to violence, or, by adopting the smashmouth media tactics of Michael Avenatti, succumbing to “Avenatti-ism.”


(Leah Millis/Reuters)

But much of the resulting debate over all this is hollow, because it is not putting these basic realities front and center: Trump, more than any leading U.S. figure in recent memory, has actively tried to stoke civil conflict on as many fronts as possible. He has concertedly subverted the rule of law, not just to shield himself from accountability, but, more to the point for present purposes, with the deliberate purpose of exciting his minority base — and enraging millions on the other side of the cultural divide — in a manner that is thoroughly corrupt to its core.

Witnessing this gaping hole in the debate is akin to watching a team of doctors diagnose a patient with advanced stages of brain cancer without acknowledging the existence of his tumor.

The New York Times reports this morning on the ways Democrats are straying from Michelle Obama’s credo: “When they go low, we go high.” The offending evidence? Eric Holder says: “When they go low, we kick them.” Avenatti counsels: “When they go low, I say hit back harder.” Hillary Clinton asserts: “You cannot be civil with a political party that wants to destroy what you stand for.”

The Times frames this as an argument among Democrats over whether it’s possible to combat Trump’s “insults” without “slipping into a pale imitation” of him. In this telling, the question is whether Democrats will play to their base’s “rage” at Trump by sinking to his “tonal” level, as if Democrats are deciding whether to engage in a snap-fight in a high school cafeteria.

Disingenuous nonsense from Republicans

Republicans, of course, have disingenuously seized on these remarks to claim Democrats are inciting violence. That’s nonsense. The meaning of these quotes is plain: They are a declaration that desperate times call for harder-edged procedural, political and electoral measures — an insistence that Democrats must forthrightly reckon with the true aims and nature of Republican countermajoritarian tactics, Trump’s illiberal, authoritarian politics, and the overlap between the two.

But nonetheless, the Times piece says that such exhortations from Democrats “risk playing into the hands” of Trump and Republicans who are painting the prospect of a Democratic takeover as a victory for the “mob.” This echoes how much of this debate has played among reporters and commentators.

But characterizing the argument this way rigs it in favor of Trump and Republicans, because it does not acknowledge agency on their part. It treats the anger on the Democratic side as existing in a kind of vacuum, as if previous conduct by Trump and Republicans had no role in the current deterioration.

To review: Trump has spent the past 18 months actively stoking civil tensions with concerted and deliberate provocations on as many cultural and racial fronts as possible. Importantly, we know he did this to please his supporters — in some cases abusing presidential power to do so — because reporting has established it to be the case.

After Trump blamed white-supremacist violence on “many sides” rather than uambiguously condemning it, Trump felt “vindicated,” because he thought his base would cheer him. Stephen K. Bannon then candidly suggested the resultant racial strife was a winner for Trump, after which Trump repeated his “many sides” formulation. Trump corruptly pardoned Joe Arpaio, who victimized and abused untold numbers of Latinos, after concluding it was “a way of pleasing his political base.” Trump launched attacks on prominent African American athletes for the act of protesting systemic racism in the belief that doing so “revs up his political base.”

Trump went out of his way to attack Christine Blasey Ford at a rally, not in spite of, but because of, the fact that it would further polarize a country already getting ripped apart over the Brett Kavanaugh battle. After winning, Trump characterized her claims as nothing but a “hoax,” contemptuously dismissing the millions of people who deeply believed Ford deserved serious treatment as a symbol of mass victimization by sexual assault. Many Republicans have adopted this line as well — in a sense the “angry mob” strategy is itself sneeringly dismissive of the political values and aspirations of those millions.

Yes, some leftists have gone too far

Here it is necessary to say that, yes, some leftist protesters have gone too far. Yes, generally speaking, it’s bad to chase people out of restaurants, and it’s bad to menace people, and it’s bad to bust up property. Yes, there is a real distinction between legitimate if angry and raucous political dissent and true mob action. But as Brian Beutler says, Republicans are elevating isolated examples of the latter in bad faith — to distract from the true source of the illiberal and authoritarian forces that have been loosed upon the land.

Thus, it just feels like misdirection when a thoughtful conservative like David French laments that “progressive mob action” is a real danger, and claims that this action is far more lawless than the “lock her up” chants at “controlled entry” rallies. Those “lock her up” chants aren’t taking place in some sealed-off TV universe that has no connection to Trump’s ongoing degradation of the rule of law and efforts to stoke civil discord. They are high-profile manifestations of the illiberal and authoritarian forces that constitute the real danger to civil peace and democracy right now.

There has been “mob action” on both sides, and it’s a problem on both sides. But once again, this is a state of affairs that Trump wants and has actively worked to bring about with 18 months of deliberate provocation, in many cases with the acquiescence or cooperation of Republicans. Debating the “angry mob” and the Democrats’ flirtation with “incivility” without all of that being absolutely front and center is sheer insanity.