Street Fighting Man: The Danger Of Political Violence In America

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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Apart from Charles Sumner and a handful of ugly protests and labor incidents over the years, America has largely avoided political violence that has been commonplace in other parts of the world.

Until now.

Today, it has become an all too real, all too common—and a very bipartisan—phenomenon. Violence from Trump supporters has been all over the headlines in the past year. But this week, the shoe was on the other foot as protesters attacked and threw eggs at Trump supporters. Seriously, it was bad. Watch this video.

Modern Americans are not used to seeing overt violence in our politics, and I am starting to wonder if some people (bored with their workaday lives) might foolishly find it exciting. For some, this is a feature, not a bug. As Orwell wrote, “Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people ‘I offer you a good time,’ Hitler has said to them, ‘I offer you struggle, danger, and death,’ and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet.”

Some of the offenders are probably thugs looking for a fight. Perhaps some nobly went to the Trump rally solely to protest, but ended up getting caught up in the mob mentality (although, you do have to wonder why someone would bring an egg unless they intended to throw it later).

Others, no doubt, might even believe they are doing us a service. Trump fans rationalize his provocation as the necessary actions of a “counterpuncher” who must “fight fire with fire.” His enemies rationalize that Trump is so bad that violence against his fans is warranted. An editor at VOX went so far as to encourage riots at Trump rallies. The Mayor of San Jose blamed Trump, and a Tucson sportscaster suggested that a Trump supporter who was surrounded and pummeled with eggs was asking for it by wearing a Trump jersey.

Even putting aside moral questions—and the fact that this mentality is patently un-American—there are several problems with the logic that violence will do anything other than perpetuate a cycle of violence and authoritarianism. First, attacking people only serves to reinforce their commitment to the cause. Even more ironic than that is the notion that you can stop evil by becoming evil.

As Jonathan Chait argues,

Suppose that Trump’s election could be prevented by breaking up his speeches and intimidating his supporters. Such a “victory” would actually constitute the blow to democracy it purports to stop, eroding the long-standing norm that elections should be settled at the ballot box rather than through street fighting.

This type of agitation is both morally wrong and counterproductive. Aside from all the other negative externalities, violence will only invite retaliation and harden polarization. People who are under attack band together, circle the wagons, and double down. We all know that if parents hate their daughter’s boyfriend, she will cling to and defend him with stubborn tenacity.

What is needed now, of course, is moral leadership. Yet it is sorely lacking. Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders have all given lip service to condemning violence. But they would be well served by devoting some serious time and energy trying to quell the violence and summon us to our better angels.

That’s what great leaders do. One of my favorite speeches comes from Robert F. Kennedy who, on the day Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, urged his audience to “dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”

This is what is demanded of a civilized and free people.

Matt K. Lewis