It is a sad, sad commentary on the state of political affairs that, after Donald Trump’s answer to questions about violence at his campaign events, reasonable people in both parties had good reason to be afraid.
Trump’s two-part answer actually moved well past the realm of deflecting or spinning. This wasn’t even the kind of victim-blaming that it seems most conservative cable news commentators know how to deploy when discussing this week’s unarmed black citizen shooting. That’s all, sadly, rather standard political fare in 2016.
This was the actual employment of language and logic used to justify cross-burnings, lynchings and all manner of illegal, extra-judicial and inhumane behavior in U.S. history. This is what has been said to support attempted genocides, ethnic expulsions and some of the most shameful political acts around the globe. This is the actual route by which bigotry has, in the course of human history, become accepted practice and policy. This is the way that entire groups have been terrorized, demonized and oppressed.
What America witnessed Thursday night really boils down to this: Moderator Jake Tapper raised the issue of violence at Trump campaign events and then ably asked a follow-up question that included reading just part of the litany of comments that Trump himself has made sanctioning, calling for and justifying the physical abuse of protesters at his massive campaign events.
Then, Trump proved himself to be one of the most able users of the kind of racially coded language that is just complex enough to distract third-graders from its intent. The Trump twist of genius on this positively antebellum political tactic was the decision to incorporate modern, ostensibly neutral terms such as “dudes.”
Trump knows there has to be some room for deniability here; he is not new to this. Trump’s campaign has proven him one of the true artisans of this trade. Believe me. Nobody in this race is better. Nobody.
Trump started with this.
People come [to Trump campaign events] with tremendous passion and love for their country.... When they see what's going on in this country, they have anger that’s unbelievable. They have anger. They love this country. They don’t like seeing bad trade deals. They don't like seeing higher taxes. They don't like seeing a loss of their jobs.... And I see it. There’s some anger. There’s also great love for the country. It’s a beautiful thing in many respects. But I certainly do not condone that at all.
In other words, people who crave simple solutions to incredibly complex challenges are riled up. They are mad. For these people, those who disagree with them have no rights. They are generally members of groups to whom it is proper to assign collective guilt, preemptively contain or dole out aggressive and rapid punishment. You know -- Muslims, undocumented Mexican immigrants, wrongfully convicted black teens. They are the scapegoats for Trump supporters’ emotional and economic pain caused by trade deals.
When Tapper followed up by reading some of Trump’s on-mic, in-public comments about protesters, encouraging his supporters and security to punch, eject and “knock the crap” out of protesters, Trump tried again.
We have some protesters who are bad dudes, they have done bad things. They are swinging. They are really dangerous and they get in there and they start hitting people, and we had a couple of big strong powerful guys doing damage to people. Not only the loudness — the loudness I don't mind — but doing serious damage.
In other words, I have no proof of what I am saying, but my supporters are the victims here. Trump voters have to defend themselves against the aggression of protesters. This, despite the presence of security and Secret Service. They simply have no choice.
Hundreds of reporters have attended Trump events. Hundreds of thousands of Trump supporters have come to these events with their own pocket-sized recording devices. But images of those constantly swinging, dangerous and devilish protesters just haven’t been made public yet.
If Trump says they are “big, strong powerful guys” who are throwing punches — not defending themselves, but throwing punches and doing bad things — then it must be true. That his ideas connect to or lean upon a long and poisonous line of racial stereotypes for credibility is just a coincidence. Right.
Now, to be fair, Trump is certainly not the only candidate who has had peaceful, noisy protesters removed from campaign events. But no other candidate — in either party — has gone so far as to suggest that their supporters resort to physical violence. They certainly haven’t referred to some unidentified time in the past where this was common — pre-1964 comes to mind — as “the good old days.” And no other candidate’s events have been the subject of multiple reports, videos, still photos and audio recordings of outright violence, accusations of Nazi-esque salutes or shouts to light a black protester on fire.
It is difficult to understand why not one of Trump’s opponents on the debate stage said just that.
It is also true that some of the protesters assaulted at Trump rallies have been white people who don’t agree with Trump’s ideas. Some protesters have defended themselves when attacked. But the presence of these people in the ranks of those abused by Trump fans is no more clearly exculpatory than that long-suppressed Chicago dash-cam tape in which Laquan McDonald was shot and killed with his back turned to police.
Trump’s racially charged, primitively coded answers to Tapper’s questions amount to a strong Exhibit A. The unmistakable frequency with which black and Latino protesters at Trump events are singled out for violent — or at least certainly hands-on — attacks and rally removals are Exhibits B-Z. Consider the evidence with care.
And if Trump never saw the footage of the most recent punching incident despite its hold on least a quarter of all cable news airtime Thursday, as he said he didn’t, this, too, is almost immaterial. For quite some time, Trump rallies have functioned like cauldrons of economic and social anxiety where Trump himself manages the under-pot flame.
Now, to be sure, there are Trump supporters who don’t condone this kind of violence. There are probably some who weren’t comfortable with Trump’s comments Thursday night about the violence and big, strong, powerful dudes. Technically, Trump himself said he does not endorse this behavior. Technically, that might have been true — on Thursday. (See video of Tapper's follow-up question above).
But there are others who will happily seize upon Trump’s unsubstantiated, racially charged claims about bad dudes and big, strong, powerful guys and repeat this like the unmistakable truth. It’s familiar and — as we have learned in case after case in which juries have failed to indict or punish officers and private citizens for questionable, possibly illegal behavior — quite believable to a frightening share of Americans.
There will also be Trump supporters who swear that they have witnessed some protester, somewhere, throw the first punch or simply felt afraid and therefore had to lash out. For these people, the facts are immaterial. Trump is the real good guy and his supporters are the ones in peril here. None of those comments Trump made at past rallies matter at all. When that starts Friday morning — and it will start — you can say you read about that here.
Just in case there are Trump supporters who want to buy and swallow a higher-grade snake oil, one that does not have the distinct aftertaste of bigotry, Trump did offer one other explanation Thursday night. For those Trump fans with the sense of history or human decency, Trump said more than once during the debate that his voters are driven by love.