Anti-Trump Riots and the War Over Liberalism

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A woman wearing a Trump shirt is pelted with eggs by protesters while pinned against a door near where Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump holds a rally in San Jose, California on June 02, 2016.
A woman wearing a Trump shirt (C) is pelted with eggs by protesters while pinned against a door near where Trump holds a rally in San Jose, California. Photo: JOSH EDELSON/This content is subject to copyright.

As the Bernie Sanders campaign winds down toward its inevitable demise, one segment of his radical supporters has cast longing eyes upon Donald Trump. It is not that they admire anything about what he stands for so much as what he stands against: Hillary Clinton and Establishment politics. “Some people feel Donald Trump will bring the revolution immediately if he gets in then things will really, you know explode,” explained Susan Sarandon earlier this spring. The writer Susan Webber has an essay in Politico headlined, “Why Some of the Smartest Progressives I Know Will Vote for Trump Over Hillary.”

Meanwhile, also on the left, another seemingly diametrical response to Trump has taken shape. Various radical groups have staged confrontations intended to shut down Trump’s speeches or to provoke street fights with his supporters. Thursday night in San Jose, demonstrators attacked Trump supporters merely for attending his speech. Several left-wing writers have justified these tactics.

It is a fascinatingly bifurcated response. Vote for Trump! Or maybe suppress his campaign through violence! Anything other than, you know, just trying to elect Hillary Clinton. This may seem like a contradiction, but it is actually consistent. And not just because the most likely result of violently confronting Trump is to enable his election. It is the expression of a backlash on the left against liberalism — with all its maddening compromises and deference to the rights of the enemy — which fetishizes success as the by-product of cataclysmic struggle.

The defenses of violence revolve around the same point. If Trump poses an extraordinary threat to the sanctity of American democracy, doesn’t this justify an extraordinary response?

The answer to this superficially appealing logic: Yes, electing Trump would amount to a dire peril for American democracy. But not only is violence unlikely to prevent his election as a practical matter (it makes Trump a figure of sympathy, and at any rate, his supporters are far more heavily armed). It would also be a disaster as a moral matter. 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.

To be sure, the advocates of violence against Trump would disagree with this conclusion. And that disagreement lies at the heart of a deeper ideological fissure that has opened up on the left over the last couple of years. Liberalism sees political rights as a positive good — rights for one are rights for all. “Democracy” means political rights for every citizen. The far left defines democracy as the triumph of the subordinate class over the privileged class. Political rights only matter insofar as they are exercised by the oppressed. The oppressor has no rights.

Free speech, while an indispensable principle of democracy, is not an abstract value,” as one fairly representative left-wing polemicist explained. “It is carried out in the context of power disparities, and has real effects on peoples’ lives. We can defend freedom of speech — particularly from state crackdowns — while also resolutely opposing speech that scapegoats the most vulnerable and oppressed people in our society.” A liberal sees Trump’s ability to deliver a speech before supporters as a fundamental political right worth defending. A radical sees this “right” as coming at the expense of subordinate classes, and thus not worth protecting.

I started writing about this resurgent phenomenon at the beginning of last year. The pushback on the left has evolved from an outright denial that any such trend exists to an acknowledgement that it may exist, but it’s just the antics of some goofy college kids. But the campus was merely the staging ground for most displays of left-wing ideological repression because it is one of the few places the illiberal left has the power to block speakers and writers deemed oppressive.

The now-routine appearance of this illiberal ideology on the presidential-campaign stage (previous displays having occurred in places like Chicago and Arizona) ought to sharpen the irreparable contradiction between two styles of politics. Does the future of the Democratic Party and the progressive movement lie in building a revolution, or in the continued work of (small-d) democratic liberalism?

Update: Vox has suspended Emmett Rensin for his pro-riot tweets. Given that Vox has published sympathetic stories about rioting as a political tactic before (see here and here), this seems like a troublesome line to draw as a firing offense.