The baseless claim of electoral fraud, in particular, has acted as an accelerant to anger. Trump consistently claims that something — power, respect or social dominance — has been stolen from his supporters and that only “strength” will reclaim it. The consequences of failure, Trump declares, would be apocalyptic: the loss of America itself. “If you don’t fight like hell,” he said before the events of Jan. 6, “you’re not going to have a country anymore.” This is the cultivation of desperation.
It is little wonder that about two-fifths of Republicans (in a poll this year) expressed an openness to political violence under certain circumstances. People in this group are not being stigmatized. They have the effective endorsement of a former president and likely GOP presidential nominee in 2024.
This line of argument is dangerously congruent with one view of the Second Amendment on the right that long preceded Trump — a belief that the ownership of guns is the last resort in the defense of liberty. This acts as constitutional permission for the use of force against fellow citizens.
It’s difficult to game out what this means for the future. Would some on the hard left respond in kind, as a stigmatized few are already doing? This reaction is not in any way equivalent to what we’ve seen on the right, mainly because the political party of the left remains committed to liberal democracy. But I suspect a marginally thicker slice of the left would be inclined to “punch a Nazi” during a second Trump term. And it doesn’t require many bad actors to cause a violent confrontation.
At the least, these trends threaten to turn any national trauma or trial — a disputed election, an unjust police shooting, a resented judicial ruling, a bitter political convention — into an occasion for violence. And a great many elections lost by Republicans will be disputed, given the GOP’s philosophic embrace of unconstitutional bad-loserism.
I suspect that a second term for Trump would accelerate all these trends. In Trump’s first term, federal law enforcement officers were given license to rough up peaceful protesters (as in Lafayette Square). Trump used violent supporters to threaten and intimidate members of Congress (and his own vice president). High-ranking military officials feared Trump might try to use the armed forces for unconstitutional purposes. Is there any doubt that Trump, empowered by reelection and accustomed to the use of power, would use times of crisis — particularly civil disorder — as justifications for broader violence?
The most important response to these unnerving trends is political mobilization to prevent Republicans from taking control of the House, Senate and presidency. But it is possible, in the natural rhythms of politics, for an unfit party to take control. So it is premature, but not irrational, to ask: What might opposition to an illiberal Trump regime look like?
A Democratic friend provides this answer: “Only an organized and ongoing mass nonviolent protest and resistance movement would be the needed counterweight.”
The advantages of this approach are the same that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. defined in “Stride Toward Freedom,” his account of the Montgomery bus boycott. King argued that nonviolence allows people to fight evil without resorting to violence; allows for opposition without dehumanization; aims at understanding an opponent rather than humiliating them; and prevents the resister from being deformed by hate.
Nonviolence is sometimes criticized on the left as passivity or compliance. That strikes me as entirely inconsistent with the civil rights movement in practice. King argued that an active but nonviolent resistance is not merely possible; it is the only strategy that preserves the possibility of future unity.
The more apt question would be: Who has the cultural standing to lead and train such a movement? It may be someone from the Black church — or the White church, for that matter. I doubt such leadership will emerge from politics. In our society it could come from anywhere: sports, entertainment, literature, music. We are left to hope that someone feels the call.
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that," King said. "Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. The beauty of nonviolence is that in its own way and in its own time it seeks to break the chain reaction of evil.”