“Was it a coincidence that the apostles of the wildest theories of violence – Nietzsche, Barrès, Sorel – were unable to perform twenty knee-bends?” – Jason Lutes, Berlin: City of Smoke
Last Friday night, organized protesters in Chicago shut down a Donald Trump rally. In the aftermath, there was a lot of agitation and hand-wringing over Trump being made “the victim,”that the demonstrators used violence to violate Trump’s right to free speech. However, many acknowledged that the disruption followed logically from the violence witnessed at previous Trump rallies, where journalists and protesters had been manhandled and assaulted by security agents and supporters alike. (Presently, Trump’s campaign manager is in hot water for allegedly harming a female reporter.) While not getting his hands dirty himself, Trump has certainly fueled the fire, encouraging that people who interrupt his events be “roughed up.” He has also publicly considered paying the fees of his supporters if they get into legal trouble for their behavior (although this should be treated with skepticism, as with all his other campaign promises).
That Trump employs a discourse of violence should not be shocking, since he is playing upon the fear and resentment many Americans feel over economic and social issues (as I have written about before). The rank-and-file of his support are not effete policy wonks, but average Americans who want to lash out because of their economic deprivation and the rapidly changing facets of their social lives. They yearn for the “good old days,” when people deemed “un-American” could be persecuted, imprisoned and even killed for being non-conformist with “traditional” American ideas, values and demographics. Contrary to what some pundits claim, there has never been an elevated discourse in U.S. politics, where regular people were riled up about intricate legislation, statistical data or convoluted policy plans. Quite understandably, political rhetoric is most effective when it manipulates emotions, be it hope and optimism — or anxiety, stress and wrath.
According to the Constitution, Trump supporters have a right to assemble and hear his polemics against immigrants and Muslims — and those who disagree with him have a right to assemble against him. The First Amendment protects people from having their opinions suppressed by the government; it does not promise you acceptance or even tolerance of your views. Protesters can (and should) organize to express their discontent, and most importantly, such protests should be allowed to be disorderly. The notion that people should be herded into “free speech zones” or “freedom cages”is far more damaging to the concept of a free society than interfering with a staged political event or engaging in forms of civil disobedience. What point is there in protesting if your protests have to be approved and organized by the very people you are protesting against?
The view that the protesters who shut down the Trump rally had a right to do so is not that controversial. A far more interesting question, in my view, is whether people should (legally or not) participate in actual violence against those deemed a danger to the public welfare. While this may seem an extreme position to some, we already see it quite a bit. In late February, anti-racist activists clashed with Ku Klux Klan members in Anaheim, California, to stop the white supremacists from marching against “illegal immigrants and Muslims” (two scapegoats of the Trump campaign as well). In January, neo-Nazis and anti-fascists fought in Dover in the United Kingdom ahead of far-right demonstrations against the acceptance of refugees. This carries on a tradition in Britain dating back to the Battle of Cable Street in 1936, when left-wingers battled British fascists in the streets, and on to the present day. Although not common lingo in mainstream U.S. political culture, “anti-fascism” or “antifa” movements have strong presences in Europe. The idea is that fascists, racists and other extreme right-wingers be denied a platform to espouse their vitriolic bile and to spread their poisonous ethos, so that past crimes will not be repeated.
It is difficult for me to advocate violence, as I am not by nature a violent person. However, I come down on the side of those who would sooner smash a fascist than defend one. Violence can be a destructive force, yes, but it can also be a creative one. From the battlefield of class conflict emerges the potentiality to reshape our world along the lines of progressive principles. To think that we will manifest a more free and just society through reasonable arguments and gradual reforms is to throw in with adherents of utopian socialism. Confrontation between the polarizing groups that define every state — the ruling and the ruled, the exploiters and the exploited — is both unpleasant and unavoidable. We must remember that it was by revolutionary force, from the French Revolution to the liberation movements of the colonized world, that oppressed peoples have constantly and bitterly emancipated themselves. The bourgeois Jacobins are quite different from the modern PKK, of course, but in every instance revolutionary liberation has been, at least to the repressive state, unauthorized and illegal. That does not make such struggles any less just or necessary; they were fought according to a higher law, a natural law, that permits the shedding of blood in the name of stopping tyranny.
We must remember that, in 1920s or 1930s Berlin, a brown-clad Nazi stormtrooper was not considered a hateful relic of a bygone historical period, but rather a contemporary phenomenon: an angry and confused young man, roused by an economic downturn and an unfamiliar social environment, allured by the bravado of a bold and unapologetic leader. This is not to say that history will repeat itself exactly, and that the same atrocities will be committed. However, we are — just as then — living in unsettled times, where the status quo is in flux, and reactionary populism has the capacity to do even greater damage to marginalized and vulnerable groups, from poor whites to the ethnic minorities the right-wing blames for their ills. Shutting down Trump rallies and kicking in the teeth of KKK members has less to do with silencing them, violating their free speech, rather than demonstrating to the world — and to posterity, if we fail — that not all of us were on the sidelines with the bloggers, pundits and the rest of the chattering classes when these events were unfolding. Only God knows what is around the corner, and it may be vain to think we can stop what is coming, but we still have an obligation to show (not just state) our defiance to it. To paraphrase that old pacifist Gandhi, our forceful rejection of Trump and his politics of hate may be insignificant, but it is very important that we do it.