The curious case of Donald Trump vs. Riots Inc. puts us in mind of Henry Kissinger’s assessment of the Iran–Iraq War: It’s a pity both sides can’t lose.
Instead, the loss is being suffered by the United States and its political institutions.
Politics-by-riot, and politics-by-threat-of-riot, is unworthy of the oldest and finest democratic republic on earth. Politics-by-assault isn’t just a crime, though such crimes should be robustly prosecuted: It is an attack on the institutions that make American self-governance possible as much as an attack on individual speakers or protesters. Among those institutions are freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. The Bill of Rights guarantees protection of those rights from government encroachment, but they also must be defended from mob-ocracy, which we have seen more than enough of in the past year, from Ferguson to Washington.
Donald Trump canceled a rally in Chicago after protests that were intended to pressure him into doing so. Which is to say, protests that were not oriented toward political expression but toward its suppression. If you have any doubt of that, consider that the protesters chanted “We stopped Trump!” after they succeeded in out-bullying the big bully of Fifth Avenue. Trump, for his part, played the martyr — a cynical posture for a man who fantasizes in public about using the law to punish journalists who displease him. A protester disrupted a planned Trump event in Ohio and later described his goal as to “take his podium away from him and take his mic away from him.” Another act of protest oriented not toward political expression but toward its suppression. That protester has been charged with disorderly conduct, and the evidence is plain enough that he should be convicted.
Trump — Saddam Hussein to the ayatollahs of political correctness on the other side — is of course far from blameless in all this. That is not to say that Trump’s irresponsible, wild-eyed, and meat-headed rhetoric, which has included explicit calls for violence against his critics, is responsible for having provoked the protests. Rather, Trump’s rhetoric has been unworthy of a presidential candidate — and unworthy of an American — in and of itself.
In case you are in need of a refresher: When members of the audience violently attacked protesters, Trump said this was “appropriate” and something “we need more of.” A shortcoming of American politics is that “nobody wants to hurt each other anymore,” he insists. He longed for “the good old days” when vigilantes would stop protesters and “treat them very, very rough.” He has offered to pay the legal bills of allies who commit criminal assault against protesters. He has fantasized about committing violence himself: “I’d like to punch him in the face,” he said of one protester. (Trump’s manicurist must have winced a little.) He called for protesters to be “carried out on a stretcher.” His instructions to audience members included “Knock the crap out of them.” There is much more.Civil discourse requires civil people. The Black Lives Matters protesters and the others who rioted and burned in Ferguson, Baltimore, and other cities are not civil people. Neither is Donald Trump, who as a public figure and a political candidate bears a special responsibility to lead by example. There was a time when men of Trump’s station understood civic responsibility, though that time seems to have passed with the rise of the Kardashian culture of which Trump and Trump-ism are an integral part. In that culture, the basics have been forgotten: Free speech for you means free speech for others, too; political violence is illegitimate in a liberal society that offers many other avenues of redress; and, as a better man than any of these miscreants once put it, political passion may strain the bonds that join us together, but “we are not enemies.”
Among the reasons that Donald Trump would be a bad president is the fact that he is a bad citizen, as he has demonstrated spectacularly in recent months. Those who would deny him a public platform through violence and the threat of violence are equally poor citizens and should be kept far from the levers of power — as should opportunists who associate with them.
There is a difference between enjoying liberty and taking liberties. This isn’t Bull Run. Trump, and those who despise him, both have a right to make themselves heard, in peace. The childishness and stupidity on both sides is shameful, and decent people on both sides should say as much and insist on better.