When he campaigned for Donald Trump last year, Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke urged audiences to join a rebellion. “It is pitchforks and torches time in America,” he’d say at rallies, glowering from beneath a cowboy hat.
Last week, the pitchforks got a little too close. Clarke described the Women’s March on Washington as “a total collapse of the social order,” a near-riot scene that left him rattled — even though it led to no violence or arrests.
“Several taunted me at women’s riot,” he wrote on Twitter. “I dared those creeps to do something. They knew better and kept it to verbal insults. No cops to be found.”
The abrupt shift of power from liberal America to conservative America has, overnight, created a new sensitivity on the right and a new toughness on the left. After years of derision about “safe spaces” and “special snowflakes,” conservatives are bemoaning insults from the left, and Republican legislators are debating new restrictions on public protests.
Much of the tone shift has come from the new president. Like no one else who has held the office in the TV era, Trump has publicly obsessed over slights, from mockery on “Saturday Night Live” to fact checks of his crowd size.
During his campaign for the presidency, Trump was often similarly defensive. But the dynamic of 2016 — a long primary, then a competition with Hillary Clinton — rewarded Trump’s counterpunching instincts and encouraged the same from supporters. Vendors sold T-shirts with the slogan ‘Trump that b----,” or worse. An online army of Trump supporters joked about journalists or nonwhites being packed into gas chambers and borrowed the language of college campuses to say that anyone offended had been “triggered.”
The first week of the Trump era has seen the aggrieved switch places with the aggressors. Bikers for Trump, which had pledged to stop any disruptions of the inauguration, was satirized after telling supporters that Women’s March participants were “calling us names.” A video of an unidentified anarchist punching Richard Spencer, the white-identity leader who coined the term “alt-right,” went viral — a Twitter account, @punchedtomusic, compiled videos of the punch set to soundtracks.
After a right-wing fundraising website asked for a bounty to identify the assailant, it was banned from Twitter and then promptly started a fund to sue the social media service “for its discrimination against conservatives, its censorship, its violation of antitrust regulation, and for everything else that we can.”
As of Thursday morning, the site had collected $3,850 of a hoped-for $250,000. Meanwhile, the Nation’s Natasha Lennard published a popular guide to the “black bloc” anarchist tactics that had led to the punch.
“This is only a problem if you think there are no righteous mobs, or that windows feel pain, or that counter-violence (like punching Richard Spencer) is never valid,” Lennard wrote.
The quick embrace of protest movements has been met with a wave of Republican-backed bills that would make protest more difficult, more illegal and more expensive. The Republican-majority House of Representatives began the year by instituting fines of up to $25,000 for members who protest. In the states, at least 10 pieces of legislation are working their way to passage, including one in North Carolina that would make it a crime, punishable with up to five years in jail, to “threaten” or “intimidate” a current or former state official.
The measure, from Republican state Sen. Dan Bishop of Charlotte, resulted from a confrontation in which several protesters shouted “shame!” and “anti-gay bigot!” at former North Carolina governor Pat McCrory on a street in Washington.
“This is dangerous,” Bishop said in a statement, according to the Charlotte Observer. “Jim Hunt, Bev Purdue and other governors never faced riotous mobs in their post-service, private lives, without personal security.”
On Tuesday, a committee in the Republican-controlled Minnesota House approved a bill that would allow cities to sue protesters who commit trespassing or unlawful assembly.
In North Dakota, a bill would limit the liability of motorists if they accidentally kill protesters who block roads — something that the president’s attempts to revive the Dakota Access oil pipeline might prompt. And in Colorado, Republican state Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg introduced legislation that would increase the charge for people who tamper with oil or gas production from a Class 2 misdemeanor to a Class 6 felony. In an email, Sonnenberg said that he supports the Constitution and that the bill was written “in no way to restrict someone’s right to protest” but instead to increase a penalty for what was already illegal.
“I have an entire constituency that feels as though protesters believe that their rights are more important than everyone else,” said Rep. Nick Zerwas, the North Dakota bill’s sponsor, in an interview with the Guardian. “Rosa Parks sat in the front of the bus. She didn’t get out and lay down in front of the bus.”
The politics of both the protests and the backlash are murky. In 2009 and 2010, Democrats insisted that tea party protesters who mocked them at rallies and town hall meetings were damaging their cause, with then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) calling some of the behavior “un-American.” Democrats lost the midterm election.
In March 2016, a Trump rally on a Chicago college campus was canceled after protesters overtook it. Trump easily won the Illinois primary; the campaign of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) believed the protests gave Trump a boost and helped him score narrow wins in key March 15 primaries.
The latest role reversal, with liberals as joyful aggressors and Republicans as victims, is not as disruptive as it seems. While mocking liberals for their sensitivity, conservatives in the media have also presented liberal protesters as a threat to civil order.
“They spent years demonizing Black Lives Matter, and they’ve seamlessly transferred those attacks to the Women’s Marches,” said Matthew Gertz, a senior fellow at the liberal watchdog group Media Matters. “After attacking the press for supposedly being in the tank for President Obama, they’re lashing out at journalists for being too hard on President Trump. What’s changed is that Republicans now hold all the levers of power in Washington — conservatives can do more than just complain; they can use the power of the state to actively suppress dissent and delegitimize critical media outlets.”
In a new ad campaign for the confirmation of Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) as attorney general, the National Rifle Association uses footage of police funerals to imply that liberal politics, and protests, had done much more than offend sensibilities.
“Cops are attacked, gunned down in cold blood,” a narrator says. “After eight years of political elites abandoning our police, we need an attorney general who supports police.”