In the United States, there is a way that democratic values permeate everyday life.
Middle school students across the country have been known to run heated campaigns for class treasurer and president. The formal debate is a time-honored university tradition. And when groups of people are in doubt about which restaurant to visit, which juror should serve as foreman, which employee should approach the boss with big and significant grievances, what do we Americans typically do? We express our ideas. And then, if disagreement remains, we take a vote. Voting is often regarded as a final and fair resolution. Both winners and losers understand that they must accept the outcome.
As a matter of fact, that peaceable transfer of power -- and all of the activities, events and exercises that lead up to that moment -- is one of the things that has set this country apart from so many others, at least since the Civil War. Violence -- particularly politically motivated, citizen-on-citizen violence -- is simply not the way that American politics get done. There are exceptions to this, but that's historical company that really should not be sought.
Yet in the six months since one Donald Trump entered the Republican presidential primary race and soared to the top of virtually every poll, there have been repeated incidents of violence, force and ugly rhetoric at or around his campaign events.
For Trump supporters, those in doubt and those with only hazy memories of the Trump campaign to date, here is a partial list:
- In August, Trump directed a member of his private security team to remove Univision anchor Jorge Ramos from a news conference. Trump says that Ramos refused to follow the rules. Ramos insists he was doing what aggressive journalists do at news conferences -- asking questions and trying to get answers. Then, in the hallway outside the event, a Trump supporter took over, telling Ramos to "get out of my country." (Click here to watch a video of this moment. CNN caught it on tape). Ramos, who was born in Mexico, is a U.S. citizen. So technically, the United States is his country, too. But that is apparently a small detail in Trump world. And so, too, were the comparisons that Ramos made between Trump's decision to eject him and the behavior of dictators and tyrants in other countries. Another Trump staffer eventually broke up the (shall we say) travel advice, coming from an unknown supporter and invited Ramos to rejoin the news conference. Once there, Ramos did ask a series of questions. And a series of conflicting stories, accounts and explanations for events that day emerged. But the bottom line, the part that people really cannot argue about, is this: One of the most respected Latino journalists in the country was physically booted out of a presidential candidate's news conference. A Trump supporter in the hall leaped to the conclusion that this is somehow his country but not the reporter's.
- In September, a scuffle of some kind happened outside Trump Tower in New York City when a member of Trump's security team reportedly grabbed a banner held by immigrant-rights protesters standing on a public sidewalk outside the building and headed back toward a Trump Tower door. Inside, Trump was holding a news conference detailing the terms under which he signed a nonbinding agreement not to launch a third-party bid for the White House. The sign read, "Make America Racist Again" -- a protester's twist on the by now well-known Trump campaign slogan. Then, when the protester tried to reclaim or grab the sign from the security staffer, the staffer hit the protester in the head and/or face. Hard. The struggle continued. A second security team member got involved. It was ugly. See a portion of what happened in the video below.
- In early October, a group of environmental activists began yelling at an Iowa Trump rally. Trump encouraged the crowd to react nonviolently, but some of the protesters told CNN a Trump supporter grabbed at least one of their signs. Police escorted the protesters out of the building.
- In mid-October, a group of protesters began yelling at a Trump rally in Virginia when the candidate began discussing parts of his immigration policy. The situation appears to have devolved quickly, with both Trump protesters and Trump supporters claiming they were violently attacked. One protester was spit upon and the protesters were removed, although it is not clear by whom. You can watch a partial video with the disgusting aforementioned moment captured on tape. Police were involved.
- Just a few days later, a group of immigrant-rights protesters were jostled out of a Florida Trump rally by someone who was reportedly a Trump supporter. A student was dragged to the ground by his collar, the Huffington Post reported. Then, the student was kicked as Trump supporters cheered. On this occasion, Trump reportedly encouraged his supporters to remove protesters but not to do them physical harm.
- In late November, Trump supporters surrounded, pushed to the ground, kicked and had to be encouraged by another supporter not to choke a Black Lives Matter protester who showed up at a Trump rally in Alabama. The man was attacked by more than one Trump supporter. Trump later told reporters that maybe the man "should have been roughed up."
- A number of, shall we say, violent skirmishes broke out at a Trump event in Las Vegas on Monday night. Protesters were removed, although it is not clear by whom. At least one black protester wound up on the ground. While there, an unidentified Trump supporter was caught on tape in close proximity suggesting -- in a much more colorful way -- that someone light someone on fire. Now, we can't be sure who the supporter was talking to or about. But we are going to go ahead and say this: That sounds a lot like a reference to the gruesome human torchings that were once a frequent feature of lynching and other mob-based racial violence. And, if all of the above has not raised your eyebrows well above their natural position or lowered them into a deep frown, there is also this: NBC News reported that someone -- another unidentified Trump supporter -- yelled the Nazi salute "Sieg heil!" amid the chaos. A Washington Post reporter was present at the event and reported in some detail on the physical fights but was part of the press corps corralled by Trump staff in a location where he did not hear the shouts and proclamations listed above. However, more than one reporter with different outlets who was not contained described hearing this language, in stories here and here.
Enough said. The point here should be clear.
The Republican front-runner -- as almost everyone who can read or has access to a television anywhere in the world is aware -- has some enthusiastic and passionate support. These Americans' esteem for the candidate and loathing for those who don't share their views is bigger, more luxurious and apparently, well, more violent than anything that the most experienced long-time political reporters and operatives have seen.
What more than one reporter has delicately and charitably described as these voters' "anxieties," "frustrations" and "fears" have, since at least August, been intermingled with some degree of openly xenophobic nationalism, racism and violence. And it seems that these are becoming increasingly active ingredients in the Trump campaign.
While the worst of the behavior described above is clearly the handiwork of a subset of Trump voters, the fact that other Trump fans have not openly condemned their behavior -- or worse still, have attempted to excuse and explain it -- is really and truly alarming. After all, isn't this the same crowd that is ever-so-fond of suggesting that Muslims have an obligation to disavow and discourage terrorism and that anything short of this amounts to aid and support of evil deeds?
But what is also clear and certainly eyebrow-raising is this. At least some subset of the Trump base feels that their rights to free speech, free assembly and access to the franchise are not sufficient to exercise the control they want to have. This is a significant development that reasonable people across the political spectrum -- those who value democracy around the world -- simply should not downplay or ignore.
When a campaign for the White House becomes entangled with and actually fueled, to some extent, by the language and ideas that produced and sustained some of the most brutal and deadly struggles for political and social dominance that mankind has ever known, we are well beyond the alarm zone.
At the very least, those who support Trump and wish to see his most unusual candidacy continue should know this: This behavior -- the list of events and language described above -- does nothing at all to make other American voters and the millions of people watching abroad view Trump and his supporters as much more than troglodytes manipulated and whipped into a dangerous frenzy.