In the closing weeks of last year’s special election in Georgia, Republicans used footage of a riot by antifa — a fringe sect that views the Democratic party with contempt — to characterize the moderate Democratic nominee Jon Ossoff as a dangerous loon. In the closing weeks of the 2018 midterm elections, Republicans have taken this message national. Democrats are an “angry mob,” charges President Trump. “You don’t hand matches to an arsonist, and you don’t give power to an angry, left-wing mob. And that’s what the Democrats have become.”
Conservatives have begun repeating Trump’s message. “Yes, Democrats, It’s a Mob,” writes David Harsanyi. “Sorry, Democrats, Progressive Mob Action Is a Real Problem,” declares an almost–identically headlined David French column. Neither Harsanyi nor French is prepared to fully defend all of President Trump’s behavior in this department. What they argue, instead, is that Trump’s sins have been exaggerated and are minor in comparison with those of his opponents. Harsanyi clucks that reporters have been “hypersensitive” about Trump’s “metaphorical overindulgence.” Trump’s just an excitable kid who gets carried away sometimes. French insists “there is no comparison between a ‘lock her up’ chant at a controlled-entry rally and the kinds of direct, in-your-face actions we’ve seen from #Resistance protesters or the Antifa street takeovers we’ve seen in Portland and elsewhere.”
I agree that there’s no comparison between the excesses of a tiny handful of revolutionary cosplayers and the president of the United States calling for the imprisonment of his political opponents. But French, incredibly, means just the opposite: The demonstrators in his mind are far worse.
The Republican cries about mobs bring together a wide range of behavior, mostly involving screaming crowds confronting elected officials. In general, I find confrontational protest tactics to be a counterproductive tactic. I also think the behavior of such protesters is essentially the same thing we saw from Tea Party demonstrators under Barack Obama. Many of these demonstrators were specifically taught to shout down the proceedings and “rattle” members of Congress. Some of those right-wing protesters spit, screamed, shoved, and used racial epithets. At the time, the conservative line on this was that the movement was being unfairly smeared by the actions of a small fringe. Today, the two sides have basically reversed positions on the angry-protesters question, with conservatives using a handful of the angriest protests to discredit an entire movement, and liberals objecting to being defined by their most vocal minority.
One difference between anti-Trump protests and anti-Obama protests is a handful of episodes where left-wing protesters have confronted high-ranking Republicans in restaurants. I don’t think that tactic makes much sense, unless you’re prepared to defend conservative protesters doing the same thing to Democratic officials in restaurants next time around, which I am not. It’s worth noting that the restaurant screamers have been organized by Democratic Socialists of America, a group outside of and usually hostile to the Democratic party. Either way, the debate around protesters is almost entirely partisan special pleading over low-stakes tactical disputes.
What actually is new to American politics is Trump’s assault on democratic norms. French dismisses the “lock her up” chants as empty rally talk. In fact, the chant, which began in the campaign, prefigured Trump’s deadly serious ambition to turn the Department of Justice into a weapon of personal control, that would harass Trump’s enemies while simultaneously quashing any wrongdoing by him and his allies. Trump has articulated this goal consistently, in public as well as in private. To the extent he has yet to succeed, it is only because the senate has prevented him from installing a sufficiently pliant attorney general — a restraint that may well disappear if the elections renew the Republican majority, which will no longer be laden with the most independent figures (John McCain, Jeff Flake, Bob Corker).
What’s more, defining “lock her up” as the Republican offense erases from the equation the entire authoritarian spirit that has infused Trump’s political style. He offered to pay legal bills to supporters who beat up protesters at his rallies. This is a president who has repeatedly attacked the news media as “the enemy of the people,” an epithet used by communist dictators, and has at least gestured at using his power to punish them. (Trump has mused about challenging licenses for television stations that report independently, and instructed the post office to raise rates on Amazon as retribution for critical coverage in the Washington Post.)
Republican member of Congress Greg Gianforte physically assaulted a reporter for asking about his health care plan; his party stood behind him, and Trump recently praised Gianforte for doing it. (“This man has fought, in more ways than one, for your state. He has fought for your state. Greg Gianforte. He is a fighter and a winner.”) It seems clear that Gianforte has come away from the incident with his reputation enhanced.
Susan Glasser, a seasoned and politically centrist reporter, observed six recent Trump rallies. She notes the cult of personality theme at the events, which feature “the kinds of tributes I have heard in places like Uzbekistan, but never before in America.” And while she allows that Trump is hardly new in making hyperbolic charges that his center-left opponents will usher in socialism, the fear of chaos he marshalls behind such warnings is novel: “Where Trump differs starkly is in his insistence — made at an increasingly high pitch as the week went on — that Democrats not only want to legislate their way to socialism but that they are an actual clear and present danger to Americans.”
The method on display is familiar if you study any historical episode of democratic backsliding. One party, either from the far left or the far right, sets out to attack and weaken democratic norms. The small-d democrats resist, trying to maintain democratic norms. But they’re fighting at a disadvantage against a ruthless foe that does not observe their limits, and at least some of the opposition undertakes a more drastic action. Any offense becomes a pretext for the authoritarians, who exaggerate the threat of violence and chaos by their enemies to justify the antidemocratic measures they were planning all along.
The threat Trump poses does not excuse the left from upholding democratic standards. (I have made this case repeatedly, in fact.) That said, Trump’s illiberalism only works because respectable conservatives cooperate with his fiction that he is more victim than aggressor. French writes, “It’s time to stop excusing, rationalizing, and minimizing behavior that is dangerous, menacing, and threatening.” Indeed it is.