Disturbing images from San Diego last week showed the kind of political violence that Americans generally assume accompanies elections in other countries, ones without a robust democracy.
Donald Trump supporters were set upon by protesters outside a campaign event. Their signs and hats were snatched; some people were punched or pelted with eggs and water balloons. While the violence was deplored, many Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans suggested that Trump’s extreme rhetoric is partly at fault. As the primaries grind to a close and the Republican and Democratic parties lurch toward their conventions, one of our priorities should be to curb the violence before it escalates.
There is little question that the violence in San Diego was entirely the fault of the anti-Trump forces. While one of the victims, a young woman seen in a viral photo with her face and hair covered in raw egg, had taunted the protesters with words and gestures moments before the assault, verbal provocation never justifies violence. A male Trump supporter took a blow to the head that left him bleeding. Such violence against Americans whose only offense was to come to a rally for a political candidate — however odious he may be — has no excuse whatsoever.
Yet some on the left have been making blatant excuses for political violence.
Jesse Myerson, a former Occupy organizer, stated on Twitter that “rioting is a legitimate and useful political tactic.” Vox writer Emmett Rensin was suspended for tweets arguing that if Trump is a harbinger of American fascism, as many have argued, rioting is a proper response.
Even a few Trump-loathing conservatives have allowed their distaste for the “Trumpkins” to lead them into minimizing violent acts; anti-Trump conservative Ben Howe, a writer for RedState, dismissed the egg-throwing as a mere prank.
Do Trump and his fans bear a more general responsibility for the violent climate surrounding his campaign? They are not wholly blameless. Trump has downplayed, and some say stoked, his supporters’ violence against protesters. Many in the Trump camp — and Trump himself — excused a violent assault on a protester at a campaign event in Tuscon, Arizona, who was carrying a sign with the Confederate flag superimposed on Trump’s face. They said that the assailant, a black Trump supporter, was provoked both by the sign and by the presence of another protester nearby who was wearing a makeshift Ku Klux Klan hood. If provocation is an excuse for Trump fans, there’s no reason it shouldn’t be an excuse for Trump haters.
There are also credible reports of mutual violence at other Trump events, including one in San Jose, California, where a video showed two Trump supporters pepper-spraying apparently nonviolent protesters.
Still, the worst of the violence has come from the left. And, as a number of Trump critics have pointed out, this violence is not only immoral and illegal, but stupid. It can only play into Trump’s hands, making him and his supporters the victims and boosting his claim that ordinary Americans are besieged by alien forces of lawlessness. It doesn’t help that some of the California protesters have waved Mexican flags and burned American flags.
It should be an urgent priority to de-escalate the violence before tragedies happen. All political leaders should unequivocally condemn violent tactics, regardless of provocation and regardless of blame assignment. There should also be a stronger police response to assaults at campaign events, and a better effort to identify and prosecute the perpetrators. Whatever our politics, we should all be able to agree that violence has no place in our political life.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.