Magazine June 27, 2016, Issue

Our Illiberal Moment

(Roman Genn)
Trump, Trump protesters, and political violence

‘If Trump comes to your town, start a riot.” So urged Emmett Rensin, who wrote with all the moral nuance and intellectual depth one expects from a 26-year-old editor at Vox. A mob of violent socialists protesting Donald Trump in San Jose, Calif., acted in accord with that advice, and Rensin (“an American essayist, best known for his book Twitterature: World’s Greatest Books in 20 Tweets,” says Wikipedia) sneered that most political observers would clutch their pearls at this (capitalization his) “Affront to Democracy.”

The editors at Vox, after some online goading, suspended Rensin, who was explicitly calling for the deployment of physical violence to silence a political adversary. Rensin’s tirade was not, Vox founder Ezra Klein wrote, consistent with the publication’s standards, which forbid “writing that could put others in danger.” Rensin’s argument — that Trump is a kind of Hitler and that “it’s never a shame to storm the barricades set up around a fascist” — is difficult for intelligent adults to take seriously: Trump isn’t standing behind barricades but standing for election. He isn’t a gulag-building dictator — he’s a dopey populist who remains for the moment far from the levers of real power.

But the world is not composed exclusively or even mainly of intelligent adults, as the ugly and stupid scene in San Jose demonstrated to what must have been Trump’s exquisite satisfaction. Among those who rioted in protest of the presumptive Republican nominee, one was charged with assault with a deadly weapon against a police officer; some pelted Trump supporters with eggs and bottles; others snatched “Make America Great Again” hats off Trump partisans and burned them while waving placards reading “We Need Socialism,” much to the consternation of the nation’s most prominent socialist politician, Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders, who denounced the violence in unequivocal terms. Mrs. Clinton, who never misses an opportunity to limbo under the low bar of political decency, blamed Trump, saying that the anti-Trump rioters were only “responding in kind.”

Like a great many statements of Clintonian origin, that isn’t actually true.

Trump supporters have heckled Bill Clinton and shown up at Democratic events with rude signs and the like, but they have not staged riots. They have not assaulted police officers, and their media cheerleaders have not called for riots to shut down events held by Mrs. Clinton or by Senator Sanders. Press accounts of the San Jose episode relied on the familiar dishonest formulation that there had been “clashes between protesters, supporters, and police” (as the local NBC affiliate put it), but the evidence tells a different story: that Trump supporters were attacked. CNN said that the violence started “after Trump supporters flooded into the streets,” a phrase that here means “after those assembled left the venue and attempted to go home when the event had concluded.”

At an earlier event in Albuquerque, it was “Protesters clash with police,” in the words of the local Fox News station, and, again, that painted a false picture: Protesters had in fact attacked the police with rocks, sending several to the emergency room. Trump’s crowd had chanted “Build that wall!” and the protesters had responded with violence. That isn’t, contra Mrs. Clinton, “responding in kind.” Responding in kind would make use of chants rather than rocks.

It is not as though Trump and his enthusiasts have been blameless: Trump celebrates political violence (“It’s sort of exciting, isn’t it? Aren’t the Trump rallies the greatest?” he said as protesters fought with security officers removing them from an event) and fantasizes about it (“I’d like to punch him in the face,” he famously said of a protester). His supporters are awful, one of them taunting a teenage girl who was pepper-sprayed after shoving a Trump partisan she says groped her: “Get out of here, you goddamned Communist nigger-lover!” Trump openly suborned political violence in offering to pay the legal fees of supporters who “knock the hell” out of protesters armed with tomatoes. He later lied about that episode, as is his habit, denying that he’d said any such thing, though his offer was broadcast to millions of households.

But even the most hostile reporting (the Daily Beast did a round-up of incidents at Trump events in March) hasn’t really found a situation comparable to what happened in San Jose. Trump fans seem to stick to Trump events rather than seek out confrontation at Sanders rallies, where the hottest action has been two topless women protesting gender-gender something-something and getting arrested for indecent exposure.

Trump’s illiberalism is of a different kind, a tendency seated in the candidate himself rather than a precipitate of his admirers’ shapeless rage. Trump proposes rewriting U.S. libel law to make it easier for public figures such as himself — the only public figure he has in mind, really — to shut down their media critics with ruinous litigation. It already is actionable for a media outlet to communicate claims that are false, defamatory, and published with actual malice or reckless disregard for the truth, but Trump wants more. What that would look like is impossible to say, because Trump communicates with the philosophical clarity of a toddler who has just dropped his ice-cream cone, but it seems to be that he’d like to make it illegal to violate his personal sense of fairness, which is infinitely plastic and entirely contextual other than in its concern for his interests. He has lobbied the FCC to punish broadcast outlets that offend him, as when the editor of this magazine remarked on Fox News that Carly Fiorina had verbally emasculated Trump at a Republican debate.

Trump’s illiberalism isn’t part of a philosophy, because Trump’s only philosophy is Donald want! Like Mrs. Clinton, whose vocal support of the pre–Citizens United regime conveniently omits the fact that the legal question in that case was whether the federal government might prohibit the showing of a film critical of Hillary Rodham Clinton, he simply believes that those who oppose him should be punished, and that whatever must be done to remove obstacles between himself and power is if necessary then moral. Here Senator Sanders is the outlier, and he is truthful when he insists that his “revolution” — the word he favors — isn’t about him but about a new kind of politics and a philosophical vision. He doesn’t explicitly add that that new politics he envisions is authoritarian and totalitarian, but he does from time to time acknowledge as much, gleefully imagining how the combination of a mobilized mob and an empowered federal regulatory regime could simply exclude his political opponents from the public square: “They may have the money,” he says, “but we have the people.” Their greed, he declares, “has got to end — and we are going to end it for them.” He proposes to do that by using campaign-finance laws to effectively abolish all private electoral activity, with the federal government funding — and, hence, controlling — the electoral process. Sanders doesn’t want to send rioters to shut down political discourse: He wants to send the police.

All of this eventually comes back to Rensin, the dopey Vox editor, and his Nazis. Hollywood loves Nazis, to the extent that it finds ways to insert them into films in which they have no business appearing: The Sum of All Fears, set in the 21st century, infamously replaced the book’s Islamic terrorists (who seemed reasonably relevant seven months after the al-Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington) with Nazis. Asked about that, a Hollywood executive explained that the situation is simple: No one ever complains if your villain is a Nazi. You can say or do anything in the world with Nazis, whereas if your villain is a cross-dressing serial killer who skins women, you’ll get an earful from cross-dressers who are not serial killers and who do not skin women but are nonetheless offended at the portrayal.

Nazis are simple, which is very attractive if you also are simple.

Rensin writes: “If Trump is Hitler, then you’ve got no business condemning rioters.” But Trump isn’t Hitler, in spite of the nationalist-socialist philosophy he shares with Senator Sanders, though some of his more energetic social-media admirers are. Even Trump’s own unvarnished racism in insisting that a judge of Mexican background should be barred from hearing the Trump fraud case because he is of Mexican background doesn’t make him Hitler. The rise of Hitler was an existential crisis for Germany; the rise of Trump is not an existential crisis for the United States, only a catastrophe.

But if Trump were a Nazi, then we wouldn’t naturally be inclined to rule out any tactic against him, which is why the Left spends so much time insisting that the Right is somehow Nazi-like, that the nation is always on the brink of being overtaken by “American fascists,” in the words of Chris Hedges’s impossibly stupid book about Christian conservatives.

The Trump element tells itself a very similar story, that the country is about to be destroyed by whoever it is that gives them the willies: illegal immigrants and poorly assimilated Spanish-speaking communities, Jews, feminists, corporate executives with worldwide interests, etc. One argued very earnestly to me that we have to empower Trump to destroy the American constitutional order lest Mexicans destroy the American constitutional order.

It’s an old politician’s trick that has spread cancerously through the American political brain: The choice isn’t between my guy and your guy, but between my guy and the end of the world.

In reality, Trump isn’t Hitler, and his rise, horrifying as it is, isn’t a coup d’état. There are many alternatives to political violence, the main one of which — defeating him at the polls in November — seems to be really quite comfortably within the grasp of his opponents. The issue that keeps Trump voters up at night — illegal immigration — is a serious national problem, but it isn’t an existential crisis at the moment, either, and it is in fact even less of a crisis today than it was a few years back, the number of illegals having declined without any effort from Washington at all. And for those whose top concern is illegal immigration, there are political remedies at hand, such as defeating in the Republican primaries every candidate whose commitment to that issue they judge insufficient — i.e., what they just achieved.

We are in the perverse position of simultaneously being too worried and not worried enough. There are real threats to our liberty and our constitutional order, threats that include, unhappily, both of the people who are likely to be the major-party nominees. Other threats include weaponized federal regulatory and law-enforcement agencies being deployed against political critics and a coterie of Democratic attorneys general attempting to criminalize heterodox views on global warming.

But both of our populist camps are demanding more of that rather than less.

In This Issue



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