olitical violence returned to American political life in 2015 when Donald Trump mobilized and cemented his support by inciting his most unstable devotees to defend his honor with force in his successful campaign for the Republican nomination. Many heeded his calls, and, for months, the fear that Trump’s reckless rhetoric would yield to widespread bloodshed preoccupied the minds of political observers—to the exclusion of the offenses to civic responsibility carried out against him and his supporters.
For at the very same Trump was sowing animosity and inspiring isolated acts of brutality, a coordinated and violent response to Trump went largely ignored.
The counter-savagery of the left against the Trump campaign was not a spontaneous phenomenon. It arose as a paradoxical response to the long-standing effort to conflate controversial speech itself with actual violence, on campuses and elsewhere.
If speech is violence, then it stands to reason that violent resistance to speech you consider violent is therefore permissible simply as a matter of self-defense. Thus has the pursuit of safe spaces and anodyne speech led to their opposites.
A mood of impending disaster permeated the streets of Chicago by March 2016. For months, Trump had offered words of support for those at his rallies who attacked protestors inside them. “I’d like to punch him in the face,” the candidate said of one of his protesters. “Take their coats!” he demanded of other anti-Trump demonstrators in January. “Throw them out in the cold.” To the cheers of his supporters, Trump advised his acolytes to “knock the crap” out of his opponents; if they did, he would “pay for the legal fees” resulting from their prosecution. “I promise,” he twice insisted. When word came that his campaign had chosen Chicago as a site for a major rally, students at the nearby University of Illinois at Chicago responded to the challenge posed by Trump and organized a demonstration against him.
Trump’s planned rally in downtown Chicago wasn’t the first of his events to be targeted by progressive protesters, but this was no ordinary protest. They chanted their mission statement as they marched down Chicago’s streets: “Shut s*** down.” These protesters, many of whom expressed their unambiguous support for the socialist Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders, sought to present as menacing a presence as possible to intimidate pro-Trump rally attendees and to force the candidate to cancel his event. Police officers were attacked. Two officers were injured, and one was hit in the head with a bottle. Out of prudence, event organizers postponed the rally indefinitely.
“I’ve never been more proud of my city,” 25-year-old protester Maria Hernandez told CNN’s reporters, who described her as dancing with merriment at the news that Trump’s rally was cancelled. Media outlets broadcast video featuring hundreds of progressive protesters chanting “We stopped Trump” in celebration.
While there was some rote condemnation of both the Trump and Sanders supporters who did not assemble peacefully, the press and the field of Republican presidential candidates alike largely responded to this event by condemning Trump. Only as the violence intensified was it unambiguously shown largely to be the one-sided work of anti-Trump protesters.
Five weeks later, more than 20 people were arrested outside of a Trump rally in Costa Mesa, California. Hundreds of protesters blocked traffic, drove recklessly, and wrecked a police cruiser in the effort to shut down yet another pro-Trump gathering. Four weeks after that, a Trump campaign event in San Jose, California, was also marred by violence when event-goers were attacked by anti-Trump demonstrators. They burned the American flag while flying the Mexican national banner. They pelted attendees with eggs, tore the clothing off the backs of attendees, and left one of their targets bleeding profusely from the face and head. Some rally-goers fought back, but the video footage of the event shows that most did not. The attacks were so unambiguous that they led to a response from Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta: “Violence against supporters of any candidate has no place in this election,” he wrote. Podesta was clearly worried that these attacks on Trump supporters could be interpreted as acts of support for Clinton.
Victimhood is now currency. As the immutable law dictates, the demand for victim status has necessitated a commensurate increase in its supply.
“White supremacists should not be entitled to ‘free speech’ to preach their hateful messages and incite beatings and murders,” declared a piece at the socialist outlet Liberation News. “No ‘Free Speech’ for Fascists,” averred Bradley Allen, a photojournalists and one of the melee’s attendees and participants. An organizer of the event, Yvette Felarca, described it as a “victory” in the struggle against fascists. “They were met with a huge crowd that was there, committed and determined, very courageous, to take action, shut them down, and stop them from organizing for genocide and for lynch mobs,” she insisted. “The Nazis did not recruit anyone new today, and our side did.”
The vast majority of media coverage of the melee in Sacramento devoted more time to educating the nation about the supremacist group that organized the protest than those who planned and initiated the violence. Detailed reporting on the event from local outlets like the Sacramento Bee, however, suggested that the assault on rally-goers was the premeditated work of the “anti-fascist” counter protesters and that it had been anticipated by the “white nationalist” group they targeted.
What They Mean by ‘What’s Right’
For an unacceptably large number of progressive activists, a violent response to speech has not only become excusable but obligatory. Such undemocratic behavior is the natural outgrowth of an increasingly mainstream progressive worldview in which the distinctions between speech and violence have been blurred beyond recognition.
Central to the ethos of a new class of progressive activist is the notion that “hate speech” can be traumatic, and not in a figurative sense. They contend that this trauma is not different from genuine physical violence. The conflation of speech with violence has resulted in the acceptance of real violence as an equivalent of free speech.
“When someone calls a black person the ‘n’ word out of hatred, he or she is not expressing a new idea or outlining a valuable thought,” read a 2012 op-ed in the Harvard Crimson. “They are committing an act of violence. When asked in a 2015 survey if “choosing to use or not use certain words can constitute an act of violence,” 53 percent of respondents ages 18–24 either “somewhat” or “strongly” agreed. Matriculated students, particularly those who affiliate with the activist left, have been taught to treat speech with which they disagree as literally a physical ordeal.
That remarkably authoritarian impulse has found supportive voices among some equally tyrannical administrators. One of the more egregious recent examples of a tendency toward the repression of discomfiting speech was orchestrated by former University of Missouri assistant professor of mass media, Melissa Click. During a November 2015 campus protest in support of racial equality, Click sought to enforce what she clearly thought was some kind of implicit prohibition on journalism. “You need to get out,” she barked at a reporter who was armed with a video camera. “Hey, who wants to help me get this reporter out of here?” she asked when the reporter declined to stop filming the demonstration on a taxpayer-funded campus. “I need some muscle over here.”
After months of process and procedure, Click was let go from the University of Missouri for misconduct, but you’d be hard pressed to find a Democrat who would approve of the school’s decision. When asked in a February 2016 survey if they agreed that “before a corporate owned media entity covers a campus rally for racial equality, they should first prove that they are not biased against the content of the rally,” 67 percent of Democrats said yes.
The marketplace of thought and philosophy has itself come to be seen as tainted with bigotry by a terrifyingly effective set of aspiring censors. In recent years, the twisted logic that confuses mental stress with physical pain has led a perpetually aggrieved caste of activists to bully those who do not share their worldview into hiding.
In the last two years alone, anti–“hate speech” activists have prevented Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Christina Hoff Sommers, and Condoleezza Rice from addressing the colleges to which they were invited because of their views on Islam, feminism, and foreign affairs respectively. Sommers, in particular, had her reputation viciously attacked for having the temerity to question the statistics that suggest an increase in on-campus sexual assault (although she is far from the only analyst asking those questions).
“Giving voice to someone who argues that statistics on sexual assault exaggerate the problem and condemns reputable studies for engaging in ‘statistical hijinks’ serves only to trigger obstructive dialogue and impede the progress of the university’s commitment to providing increased resources to survivors,” read an editorial in Georgetown University’s Hoya protesting Sommers. You could be forgiven for thinking “obstructive dialogue” is a rather fancy way of saying “shut up.”
The desire to appropriate the moral righteousness conferred upon a victim of legitimate violence is evident in the “safe space” movement, whose very name represents an attempt to co-opt the suffering of legitimate victims. According to Christina Hanhardt, associate professor of American and LGBT studies at the University of Maryland, the “safe space” rose out of the mid-20th century gay and lesbian community’s efforts to create neighborhoods free from discrimination, bigotry, and violence. It is particularly hypocritical for the socially progressive left, which is especially sensitive to the invented scourge of “cultural appropriation,” to ignore the fact that a legacy of harassment endured by an earlier generation of gays and lesbians has been commandeered by young adults in the cushiest of imaginable environments.
Victimhood is currency. As the immutable law dictates, the demand for victim status has necessitated a commensurate increase in its supply.
Speech as Violence, Violence as Speech
The arbitrary disregard for the distinction between free expression and incitement was most unashamedly on display following the attack on Charlie Hebdo in January of 2015.
“Charlie Hebdo weren’t asking to be shot,” the Daily Beast’s Arthur Chu graciously conceded. “They were asking for a reaction, though, and for half a century now they’ve been surviving pretty much on the notoriety of constantly trying to provoke a reaction.” He added that the 12 who died in Hebdo’s offices should not be remembered as martyrs. “I’ve already seen what happens when you get a culture that, rather than asking to what end we defend free speech, valorizes free speech for its own sake and thus perversely values speech more the more pointlessly offensive it is.”
Chu wasn’t alone. “Charlie Hebdo has a long record of mocking, baiting and needling French Muslims,” wrote Financial Times columnist Tony Barber. “If the magazine stops just short of outright insults, it is nevertheless not the most convincing champion of the principle of freedom of speech. France is the land of Voltaire, but too often editorial foolishness has prevailed at Charlie Hebdo.”
Those were not uncommon responses to acts of violence against the magazine from those who define the contours of the democratic dialogue. “Sorry for your loss, Charlie, and there’s no justification of such an illegitimate response to your current edition,” wrote Time magazine’s Paris Bureau Chief Bruce Crumley in response to an attempted firebombing of Hebdo’s offices in 2011. “But do you still think the price you paid for printing an offensive, shameful, and singularly humor-deficient parody on the logic of ‘because we can’ was so worthwhile?”
Months later, after Paris was again struck by Islamist violence, no less a figure than Secretary of State John Kerry stated that the coordinated attack by a pair of gunmen on sites across the city in November 2015, which killed 130 people and wounded hundreds more, was far more senseless than the attack on Hebdo. Kerry said that those who killed cartoonists and writers months earlier had “a rationale that you could attach yourself to somehow and say, ‘Okay, they’re really angry because of this and that.’”
The White House has routinely questioned the prudence of provocative speech lampooning radical Islamist fundamentalists. From the inflammatory YouTube video that the White House said had inspired the murder of four Americans in Benghazi to the satirical drawings of the Prophet Muhammad in the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten, the Obama administration and its fellow travelers have been quick to note that speaking freely and provocatively has consequences—and, implicitly, that those consequences are in some way deserved.
When on May 3, 2015, two terrorists tried to kill the attendees of a “cartoon drawing” event in Garland, Texas, in solidarity with Hebdo (an attack for which the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria claimed credit), MSNBC host Chris Matthews insisted that organizer Pamela Geller was intentionally “provoking,” “taunting,” and “daring” Islamist radicals to commit murder. The Washington Post noted that Geller had strangely refused to apologize for exercising her freedom of speech. “Do you at some level relish being the target of these attacks,” CNN host Erin Burnett asked Geller. “Looks like Pamela Geller will get her wish: More dead Americans at the hands of radical Muslims,” the New York Daily News’s Linda Stasi emoted.
The Western left indulged in a similarly haughty response when a Danish café hosting Jyllands-Posten cartoonist Lars Vilks was attacked by an Islamist gunman weeks later. Before he was targeted by Islamists with bullets, Vilks had been targeted by his fellow Western Europeans—students who attended his by-invitation lecture at Swedish university—with eggs.
It isn’t merely Islamist terrorists who find forgiveness from the left if they claim they were incited to violence by inflammatory acts of free expression. When the clinically demented Jared Lee Loughner killed six people and gravely wounded former Representative Gabrielle Giffords outside of a Tucson supermarket, the nation’s liberal commentators became earnestly convinced that he was some sort of Manchurian Candidate who had been remotely activated by the picture of a target on Sarah Palin’s website.
The improvised bombs that killed three and wounded more than 260 others at the Boston Marathon in 2013 were initially blamed on the day upon which they exploded—Patriots Day, a Massachusetts holiday celebrating the opening battles of the American Revolutionary War. “Obviously, nobody knows anything yet,” Esquire’s Charles Pierce cautioned before noting that Oklahoma City bomber and Midwesterner Timothy McVeigh carried out his bloody act on that same day because “he fancied himself a waterer of the tree of liberty and the like.”
When Robert Lewis Dear Jr. opened fire on an abortion-providing health center in Colorado Springs, reproductive-rights advocates were quick to blame not the shooter but their political opponents. “They have ignited a firestorm of hate. They knew there could be these types of consequences, and yet they ratcheted up the rhetoric,” National Abortion Federation President Vicki Saporta told reporters, many of whom quoted her uncritically. “It’s not a huge surprise that somebody would take this type of action.” Dear was later ruled mentally incompetent and unable to stand trial.
A Moment for Fanaticism
Democrats and liberals had every opportunity to reject debauchery and violence in the name of progressivism in 2011, with the emergence of the so-called Occupy Wall Street movement. Occupy’s violent tendencies were out in the open by the fourth week of this protest in lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park, which had by then created a sensation and resulted in chapters sprouting up in cities all over the world. The movement’s sister encampment in Rome had already exploded in violence by October 2011, when self-described “occupiers” smashed local shop and bank windows, destroyed ATMs, attacked news crews, and set cars alight. In New York, more than 700 protesters were arrested for attempting to shut down the Brooklyn Bridge. None of these signs of trouble were enough to dissuade Democrats from embracing the movement they thought would serve as a kind of Democratic Tea Party.
The transformation of an authoritarian movement into a violent one requires a catalyst. The spark might have arrived in the form of Donald Trump’s ascension.
Except that, by late October, New York City’s encampment was plagued by accusations of rampant sexual assault and the abuse of minors—accusations the group’s organizers had allegedly sought to cover up to shield the group from bad press. By November, incidents of property destruction and police overtime resulting from the protests were estimated to have cost American cities $6 million and counting.
Acts of violence related to these encampments soon became more organized. In Washington, D.C., an Occupy contingent overpowered a group of security guards and forced their way into the National Air and Space Museum. A riot erupted in Denver in which police were assaulted amid an attempt to break up an Occupy encampment. Five members of a Cleveland branch of the Occupy movement tied eight packages of what they thought were plastic explosives to the supports of an Ohio bridge as part a campaign targeting symbols of “corporate America.” And in Oakland, emboldened by the endorsement of labor unions like the SEIU, the AFL-CIO, the UAW, and the Teamsters, a 3,000-strong mob of protesters stormed a port facility. The rioters broke windows, vandalized buildings, and set fires as they wreaked devastation throughout the largely vacant Oakland ports—all of which was covered closely and approvingly by center-left media outlets.
“We gonna go to war if we got to,” said Melvin Kelley, an Oakland Occupy organizer who linked the mayhem to a long-standing and occasionally violent feud between police and city residents. “We gonna do what we gotta do.” Even the movement’s less overtly militant members had endorsed unorthodox methods to advance their agenda. “If they fire the folks who are unionizing, we can shut them down. Unions can’t legally organize in that way,” said self-styled Occupy Oakland spokesman Boots Riley. “But we can do stuff based on what’s right. Not what’s legal.”
When Politics Turns Violent
Those who watched nervously as the left sought political advantage by irresponsibly equating free expression with acts of physical aggression cautioned that such callous negligence would have grave consequences. “When speech comes to be seen as a form of violence, vindictive protectiveness can justify a hostile, and perhaps even violent, response,” Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt warned in the Atlantic in September 2015.
Lukianoff and Haidt were echoing a generally bleak view abroad and within intellectual conservative circles that the closing of the American mind would eventually give way to the closing of its fist as well. But transforming an authoritarian movement into a violent one requires a catalyst. That spark might have already arrived in the form of Donald Trump’s ascension.
Donald Trump has tapped into a vein of fanaticism fueled by both cultural anxiety and grievance, and that still may become something more organized and dangerous. Trump’s habit of indulging the sinister impulses of his more radical supporters cannot be abided. But his incitement does not absolve the Republican nominee’s opponents of guilt for legitimizing extremism in their own ranks and overlooking or excusing away the violence done in the name of progressivism.