To hear committed Donald Trump supporters tell it, their absolute devotion to the earned media-fueled candidate slouching toward Cleveland is unwavering, in part, because he will finally address their myriad grievances. “Make America great again” is exasperatingly vague, as are the candidate’s policy prescriptions for realizing that nebulous goal. So, too, are the vexations of his supporters.
It is important to note that, just because undying support for Trump among a core faction of ideologically pliable voters is built upon a litany of ill-defined offenses, it does not follow that those complaints are necessarily illegitimate. The American middle class has seen its collective income security decline over the course of the Obama administration. Even as employment and labor force participation rates are finally beginning to recover from the 2008 financial crisis, wage growth for less educated laborers remains stagnant. A constitutionally dubious “Muslim ban” would not resonate with so many millions of Americans if the administration had not allowed a terror-exporting Islamist caliphate the size of the U.K. to arise in the Middle East. The tools these voters have determined will address their frustrations are certainly imprecise, but their senses of adversity and distress are real.
There are illegitimate grievances animating the celebrity candidate’s supporters, too. Despite serving alongside one of the most profligate presidents in American history, the GOP-dominated chambers of Congress have managed to control spending and keep debt expansion in check. This may not satisfy rigidly dogmatic activists who would prefer to see the federal government stripped of all funding. Those who shriek “omnibus” in lieu of an argument are, however, demonstrating an unwillingness to acknowledge declining discretionary spending rates, deep cuts tied to “the sequester,” and a dramatic reduction of federal spending as a percent of U.S. GDP.
There are still Republican voters who declare that the Republican Party has betrayed them by declining to force President Barack Obama to, for example, veto the repeal of his health care reform law. When they are informed that the GOP did precisely that in January and the conservative entertainment complex simply declined to celebrate the fact, they’ll switch gears and insist that it’s too little, too late. Then there are, of course, those who are litigating an irreparable grievance against the modern global economy. Those who think the tides can recede if Canute would just impose a tariff on them are deluding only themselves. While employment in domestic manufacturing is actually on the rise from its 2010 nadir, individual productivity is skyrocketing. Mass manufacturing employment isn’t going to be restored to 20th Century levels because mass-manufacturing employment isn’t necessary or viable anymore.
The aggrieved Trump voter has an ever-expanding list of injuries at their disposal to justify their support for the bombastic celebrity and his specifics-free campaign, but the latest – violence – is duly receiving the most attention. As the real estate heir inches nearer to his party’s presidential nomination, so, too, has the familiar cast of animated left-wing agitators gravitated toward the candidate. They are today registering their dissatisfaction with Trump and his followers in distinctly counterproductive ways.
Supporters of Bernie Sanders and professional protesters organized by MoveOn.org descended on a Trump rally in Chicago with the express intention of shutting the event down. This weekend, anti-Trump demonstrators blocked off a road in Arizona and chained themselves to makeshift barricades to prevent Trump supporters from attending another rally. The professional left on American campuses has raised a generation that is overtly hostile toward the practice of free expression when that expression is being practiced by someone with whom they disagree. Their political leaders often indulge this cohort’s worse impulses. It is today the position of the Democratic Party that the First Amendment as it is presently construed is anathema and the Constitution must be amended to limit precisely which entities can practice political speech. It is no small irony that these protesters oppose a campaign that believes precisely the same thing, albeit Trump’s stated objective is only to limit the protections on those media organizations that would dare criticize him.
Trump supporters will cite these modest bands of malcontented youth as yet another injury to their pride and privilege as Americans, and they’re not without a point. That offense has only hardened their resolve to support the former reality television star’s presidential bid. The revisionists among them will also seek to create a chicken-egg debate over what precisely led to the regular fits of violence at Trump events – so regular that local news outlets now tease “another violent outburst at a Donald Trump rally” with discernible ennui. The frequency with which protesters are attacked by pro-Trump event attendees – a phenomenon that began before the candidate’s events were the target of organized protests – has begun to inure the public to political violence. That is a devastating travesty. America has been spared organized political brutality for the better part of a generation, but that time of relative placidity is coming to an end.
Influential conservative voices may be tempted to excuse the violence that erupts at Trump rallies, and the candidate’s unambiguous and inexcusable history of encouraging such violence, as the inevitable response to opposition from left-wing instigators. This is simply craven. The violent response to Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric was predictable if only because so many predicted it. To define the basic expectations of common humanity down to a level at which we are compelled to excuse the reptilian nature of the mob is to lose our sense of civics, not to mention basic decency. Elias Canetti’s crowds are easily whipped up into frenzy. It is the responsibility of leaders of good faith to avoid that temptation and to cool passions when they boil over. Irresponsible leaders like Donald Trump ignore that obligation.
It should not surprise conservatives that the left’s most irascible elements are acting in ways that are counterproductive. This has never been a group of political activists with a sense of proportion. It is, in a sense, unsurprising that the targets of their dissent would respond with further resolve to aggravate their critics. There is, however, no excuse for the violent episodes perpetrated routinely by Trump backers and, allegedly, members of the Trump campaign. To invent one is to invite moral bankruptcy.
It has become inescapably clear that Donald Trump is incapable of “pivoting” to the general election by moderating his rhetoric. He is a slave to his crowds, and he has confessed that he is apt to give them whatever they want in the moment, so long as it keeps the energy level high. The candidate’s penchant for entertaining the idea of political violence in his name is just the latest shiny object to which Trump’s rally-goers are attracted. If Trump becomes his party’s presidential nominee, the pressure on the nation’s Republicans to excuse irresponsible incitement and unreasonable responses to provocation may become irresistible. Those who feel compelled to defend such ugliness would sell their souls for a taste of power, and they will soon find the bargain wasn’t worth the cost.