The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion No one will be able to stop the political violence Donald Trump is unleashing

Violence at Trump campaign events has been increasing in intensity. Here's a look at how it has escalated to the events in Tuscon on March 19. (Video: Daron Taylor, Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

On Oct. 24, 1968 , at Manhattan's Madison Square Garden, in the very heartland of the "intellectual morons," as the third-party presidential candidate George Wallace was given to say, Wallace told a cheering overflow crowd of 20,000 about a protester who had laid down in front of Lyndon B. Johnson's limousine. His take was this: "When November comes, the first time they lie down in front of my limousine, it'll be the last one they ever lay down in front of." Protesters shouted in the arena. "After November 5, you anarchists are through in this country," he told the demonstrators. "You'd better have your say now." Outside the hall, Wallace supporters and adversaries clashed with each other and with the police, while inside, officers rescued a group of black protesters surrounded by Wallaceites who chanted: "Kill 'em! Kill 'em!"

Richard Strout, a longtime New Republic columnist not given to overstatement, heard the crowd from the balcony and wrote, "There is menace in the blood shout of the crowds." That year, political violence flourished. In April alone, police bloodied peaceful antiwar demonstrators in Chicago; a shootout between cops and Black Panthers in Oakland, Calif., left one Panther dead; police beat many students occupying Columbia University buildings and arrested more than 700; scores of cities exploded in riots, including assaults on police and firefighters, after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. August brought more assaults on demonstrators, almost all of them nonviolent, at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. America was a tinderbox. Wallace knew he was playing with fire.

Blood shouts are back, and some of them come from Donald Trump's stage. In Las Vegas last month, Trump said of one protester, "I'd like to punch him in the face," waxing nostalgic for an era when protesters would be "carried out on stretchers." "We're not allowed to push back anymore," Trump rued. The day after an enthusiast threw a sucker punch at a demonstrator being led out of a Fayetville, N.C. event, Trump said: "The audience hit back. That's what we need a little more of."

This mood ripples outward from Trump's rallies. The billionaire canceled a Chicago appearance last week amid tussles between his supporters and demonstrators who had gathered for the event. In Kansas that day, a white motorcyclist assaulted a Bangladeshi student (Wichita State's student-body vice president) and his Hispanic friend, shouting: "Trump will take our country from you guys!"

Wallace roused his crowds against left-wingers in the same way Trump turns his followers’ rage against Muslims and immigrants. Like Wallace, the game Trump plays is, “Make my day.” Disruptors in his audiences are props for his performances, rallying his supporters more fervently and defensively around him. The result, as in 1968, is a growing climate of violence. It feels as if, somewhere, fuses are lit.

Chaos postpones Trump rally

Trump supporter Birgitt Peterson (CQ), center, of Yorkville, argues with protesters outside the UIC Pavilion after the cancelled Trump rally Friday, March 11, 2016. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune)

The menace of the late 1960s eventually subsided as Richard M. Nixon harnessed his “silent majority” to calm the political climate early in his presidency as the ultra-radicals burned through whatever base of sympathy they had started with. But today’s chaos won’t be so easy to stop. The splenetic fury Trump taps may be immutable, and no Nixon is on the horizon to focus it.

When Trump says that "the police are the most mistreated people in this country," he channels Wallace, who argued that the Supreme Court had "handcuffed" the cops with Miranda v. Arizona and other decisions. "I'm going to give the total support of the presidency to the policemen and the firemen in this country," Wallace said. ". . . My election as president is going to put some backbone in the backs of some mayors and governors." It was his coded invitation to mayhem. Wallace's America was already raw, inflamed by years of confrontations between an insurgent civil rights movement and the violent backlash against it, riots, assassinations, and turmoil over an unpopular and unwinnable Vietnam War.

Wallace’s third-party movement couldn’t last, and Nixon was the reason. The Republican candidate was the shrewd and ostensibly more civilized alternative to the flagrantly racist and demagogic Wallace. The former vice president had only narrowly lost the 1960 election to John F. Kennedy, and in the interim, befriending Republicans of all stripes, he had rebranded himself “new.” He projected reasonable manners.

Nixon wore this cloak of respectability to outflank Wallace. Denying that his call for law and order was racist code, he campaigned in an approximately presidential manner because he knew where to turn the silent majority's animosity: against the left. Wallace hated hippies as much as radicals. Nixon was more subtle in mobilizing reactions against the cultural changes of the '60s — civil rights, feminism, gay rights, revolts against authority overall. (Working-class rage didn't have a dollars-and-cents dimension then because the country was floating on a lively, growing economy.) Convincing his voters that he could put down such unnatural weirdness without so many snarls, Nixon was able to confine Wallace's electoral college victories to five Deep South states, the least-reconstructed zone of the Confederacy.

As a result, Nixon rode a largely unified Republican Party into the White House. Democrats, unable to break with the unpopular war they were responsible for, and unable to fend off anti-black backlash, were helpless. Nixon picked off working-class white Democrats and added them to the Republican base. Having presented himself as a law-and-order man, he could turn on a dime and adroitly declare in his 1968 victory speech that he would "bring the American people together."

Nixon and Wallace together won 64 percent of the white working-class vote. Once in power, Nixon finished off Wallace as a political force by doing what his silent majority wanted: With the help of a compliant press, he pushed Vietnam off the TV screen by claiming he was phasing out the war and by bringing home some American troops even as the bombing increased and casualties mounted. He mobilized the FBI against the increasingly confrontational Black Panthers and other left-wing groups. He sent signals that he was in sync with the backlash: In 1970, he proudly accepted a hard hat from construction workers who had assaulted nonviolent demonstrators near Wall Street after the Kent State killings; in his second term, he appointed the hard hats' leader as secretary of labor. His message to a fed-up public was: You can trust your duly constituted authorities to beat back subversives. The nation was becalmed, episodes of riotous violence fell off and Nixon was reelected in 1972 almost by acclamation, winning 70 percent of the white working-class vote.

Today’s nativist animus — and the violence it has spurred — will not be so handily co-opted. First, there are stickier economic problems. In the past few decades, plutocracy, globalization and compliant governments have betrayed workers, most of whom are white. Their decline began long before NAFTA, with the rise of low-wage foreign economies and a crushing, decades-long assault on the unions that had kept their wages up and their jobs in place. If Trump enters the White House, he cannot solve these problems. However often he fulminates against trade deals, he cannot conjure secure jobs for his fans. His “beautiful wall,” whether built or unbuilt, offers symbolic pleasures, but it would not make them walk taller or elevate their paychecks. Neither would tariffs, for which the price would be high.

Memorable moments on the campaign trail with Donald Trump

Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump shows off the size of his hands as Fox News Channel moderators Brett Baier (L) and Megyn Kelly (R) look on at the U.S. Republican presidential candidates debate in Detroit, Michigan, March 3, 2016. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook (REBECCA COOK)

Then there are the cultural furies that fuel the Trump campaign: As a hefty share of white Americans see it, they've been forced to suffer the depredations of a black president whose middle name is Hussein — at this late date, 43 percent of Republicans still think he is a Muslim. What Trump holds out to his thwarted followers are the joys of instant, long-deferred gratification. When his supporters say "he says what he thinks," they mean what they think and, even more, feel. How thrilling that, at last, a big shot, a winner, stands up for them, promises to wall off the bad guys, or punch them in the face, or both.

Most of all, though, there’s no respectable version of Trump — no Nixon — waiting in the wings to deliver on promises and contain the free-floating hatred. There’s no one to placate the enraged white working class, especially the men, and it’s hard to imagine policies that would make a re-greatened America “take the country away from you guys.”

Neither Trump nor his GOP rivals can create that America — not soon, at any rate. Merely having a white president again is unlikely to mollify the angriest white voters. They want more than walls and nastiness; they want a viable, reliable economic life. They want a world where whites have secure, dignified jobs (better jobs, by the way, than immigrants and other upstarts who used to know their place). There’s every reason to believe that they’ll continue to feel victimized by malevolent interlopers: Barack Obama, China, immigrants, Muslims. Their frustration will have no outlet; no deliverance is in sight.

Even if Trump retired from politics tomorrow, the political mainstream has little or nothing to offer these voters: not Ted Cruz, not Paul Ryan, not tea party tax and welfare cuts, not Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders (who would face a Republican Congress determined to block their proposals anyway). Cultural backlash is hard to roll back with policies; it takes on a life of its own and prompts belligerent paranoia against "you guys." This American trend is not exceptional: Support for the same kind of nativism and authoritarianism has been growing for four decades in Europe.

Because this rage has no easy fix, spatters of nativist violence are likely into the next administration. If that is Trump’s, he could always try the Nixonian mix of centrism and brute force to contain some of the anger, but remedial policies alone cannot stop the backlash he has furthered. It is deep and unforgiving — so much so that some of Trump’s legions might be available for freelance violence. In fact, if Trump loses, he might decide it would be fun to serve as a figurehead for that movement. White police officers, feeling crowded by the Black Lives Matter movement, might feel the call to contribute to the backlash, as they did across the country during the Wallace era. The difference is that, as a national candidate, Wallace was an outsider; Trump, by contrast, is on the verge of conquering the Republican Party.

In fact, Trump's bludgeoning rhetoric may be even more dangerous than Wallace's. Defeat could prove to be Trump's victory, just as Barry Goldwater's 1964 rout paved the way for Ronald Reagan's ascent. Trump has opened the gates for imitators in the years to come — not only mainstream politicians (he has already won the support of right-wing Florida Gov. Rick Scott) but nativist outliers all over. Riotous actions are seeping out of the campaign and into ordinary civic life: Basketball fans at a largely white Indiana high school, for instance, taunted the players from a heavily Latino school last month with a poster of Trump and chants of "Build a wall!"

If Trump arrives at the GOP convention a few votes shy of a majority and has the nomination wrested from him, he said Wednesday, "I think you'd have riots." Tossing lit matches into dry straw, he's probably right. The future is bright with the flames of chaos.

Twitter: @toddgitlin

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