We must love one another or die.
— W. H. Auden, “September 1, 1939”
In the early 1930s, about a hundred communists crashed a Nazi meeting in Bremen, Germany, determined to break it up. One of them, Richard Krebs, rose to interrupt a speech by Herman Göring, head of the notorious SA stormtroopers, a paramilitary group dedicated to political intimidation and violence. Krebs only got out a few words before the “brownshirts” rushed toward him. As Krebs later wrote,
“A terrifying mêlée followed. Blackjacks, brass knuckles, clubs, heavy buckled belts, glasses and bottles were the weapons used. Pieces of glass and chairs hurtled over the heads of the audience. Men from both sides broke off chair legs and used them as bludgeons. Women fainted in the crash and scream of battle. Already, dozens of heads and faces were bleeding, clothes were torn as the fighters dodged about amid masses of terrified but helpless spectators. The troopers fought like lions. Systematically they pressed us on towards the main exit. The band struck up a martial tune. Hermann Göring stood calmly on the stage, his fists on his hips.”[i]
A political life fraught with such violent thuggery once seemed unimaginable in contemporary America. What happened in Germany could never happen here, we tell ourselves. Physical violence as a routine form of political expression is not something we expect our leaders to tolerate, much less encourage. What, then, are we to make of the violent anger which has become a common feature of Donald Trump rallies?
At one such gathering, a man held up a sign, “Make America hate again!” The crowd happily obliged, ripping up the sign and roughing up the protester. At another rally, on March 10, a 78-year-old man in the crowd sucker-punched a young activist as he was being escorted out of the arena by Trump’s security guards. “He deserved it,” the man told a reporter. “Next time, we might have to kill him.”[ii]
In Ashley Parker’s excellent New York Times piece on this phenomenon, she sees the crowd’s violent reaction as “almost biological”:
“Trump supporters typically begin shouting, pointing, jeering — and sometimes kicking or spitting — at the protester, surrounding the offender in a tight circle, like antibodies trying to isolate and expel an unwanted invader from the bloodstream.”[iii]
Is Trump to blame for the passions of his followers? He has made some cursory disclaimers after the fact, but when the anger erupts he does little to discourage it.
On February 1, he told an Iowa crowd to be on the lookout for protesters with tomatoes. “If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of ‘em, would you? Seriously. Okay? Just knock the hell – I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees, I promise, I promise.” Later that month, as a protester was being ejected from another rally, Trump said, “I’d like to punch him in the face.”[iv] It is hard to listen to this stuff without thinking of Göring in Bremen, standing “calmly on the stage, his fists on his hips.”
When asked by reporters about the violence, Trump talks about “the good old days” when America wasn’t “weak,” and you were able to dish out a well-deserved pummeling. “This country has to toughen up,” he says. “These people are bringing us down.”[v]
Such scapegoating is one of the hallmarks of fascism. Instead of the hard work of developing concrete policies and building support for them, the leader simply invokes fear and hatred of “the other” to unite his followers. Trump repeatedly demonizes protesters as “nasty people” and blames them for initiating the violence, even though no reporter or camera has seen anything to support his claim, except for one thrown tomato that is said to have missed the mark.[vi] This one-sidedness may change, of course, for violence can be highly contagious.
Trump has argued that his supporters are not really angry people, but that they “do get angry when we see the stupidity with which our country is run and how it’s being destroyed.”[vii] His rhetoric bears a chilling resemblance to the Nazi justifications for Kristallnacht: “an expression of the people’s rage” …. “ “a just measure of indignation”… “our patience is exhausted.”[viii]
A few days ago, Trump described an incident at an earlier rally. “He was a rough guy and he was punching. And we had some people – some rough guys like we have right in here – and they started punching back. It was a beautiful thing.”[ix]
In this week’s Republican presidential debate, the three other candidates were given the opportunity to condemn the political violence of Trump’s mob, but they kept silent. Maybe they were hoping it would all just go away, without their having to risk the loss of any votes from “the base.” But silence in the face of evil is just endorsement by default.
We hear God invoked repeatedly in presidential campaigns by candidates who claim to be good Christians. But a “Christianity” so enamored of what theologian John Milbank calls the “ontology of violence” feels unrecognizable to me. Whether it is the manipulation of anger at a rally or policies of aggression against everyone who is “other,” such a politics is anathema to the transformative project of conforming the social body to the divine desire for justice, forgiveness, and peace.
Last October I had a conversation about American politics with a few British shape note singers in a London pub. They wanted to know what on earth the Trump spectacle was all about. I muttered the common wisdom of the moment about a clownish celebrity who would soon fade away. “Watch out,” warned one of the Brits, the daughter of an Anglican priest. “A single dumb candidate can make the whole process dumber, and drag everyone down to his level. That happened here when we elected our mayor. It could happen in America.”
She was right, as we now know, although “dumb” is the least of it. How far can we still sink? In Richard Evans’ acclaimed trilogy on the Third Reich, he describes Germany on the eve of the Nazi takeover in one disturbing sentence: “Years of beatings and killings and clashes on the streets had inured people to political violence and blunted their sensibilities.”[x]
The blunting of our own sensibilities should be worrying us. But how can we resist the downward pull of fear, hatred and violence without ourselves being corrupted by it, or sucked into its vortex of rage? How may we give concrete political form to the better angels of our nature?
The day after Martin Luther King was assassinated, Senator Robert Kennedy spoke against the violence permeating American culture in the 1960s:
“Some look for scapegoats, others look for conspiracies, but this much is clear: violence breeds violence, repression brings retaliation, and only a cleansing of our whole society can remove this sickness from our soul.”[xi]
Two months later, Bobby Kennedy himself would be cut down by the political violence he had so earnestly lamented. As for the rest of us, the day of our collective cleansing still remains sadly distant.
[i] Richard J. Evans, The Coming of the Third Reich (New York: Penguin Books, 2003), 270
[ii] Ashley Parker, “Riskiest Political Act: Protesting at Rallies for Donald Trump” (New York Times, March 10, 2016)
[iv] Philip Bump, The Fix, Washington Post online, March 10, 2016
[v] Jim Salter & Jill Colvin, Associated Press, March 11, 2016
[vi] Daniel White, “Donald Trump Tells Crowd”, Time online, February 1, 2016
[vii] Salter & Colvin
[viii] Walter Laqueur & Judith Tydor Baumel, eds., The Holocaust Encyclopedia (New Haven: Yale UP 2001). 390
[ix] Jill Colvin & Michael Tarm, Associated Press, March 11, 2016
[x] Evans, 348
[xi] Robert F. Kennedy, Remarks to the Cleveland City Club, April 5, 1968