Donald Trump held one of his first campaign rallies of the 2020 election cycle on Monday night, and it looked a lot like the president’s 2016 rallies in some particularly inauspicious ways. The violence, it seems, has begun again.
Reading from the teleprompter, the president began well enough. He appealed to the better angels of our nature, espousing conservative first principles and rejecting the politics of division that seeks to stratify America along demographic and socio-economic lines. These are speechwriters’ staples, but nostrums appealing to common humanity and the American civic creed ring hollow from the mouth of the president. That’s just not who he is. And it didn’t take long for Trump to retreat to a more comfortable place in which his fellow Americans are his enemies.
Departing from the prepared remarks about his successes as president, Trump chided the press for refusing to “acknowledge what we’ve done and how well we’re doing it.” He continued: “I don’t think I’ve had a good story in years. I don’t get good press.” Citing Rasmussen polling purporting to show that a majority approve of his job performance, the president insisted that this feat was even more impressive because it was achieved amid consistent negative media coverage. A few minutes later, a man in a red MAGA hat screaming anti-media profanities attacked a BBC News cameraman. As the unruly attacker was detained by rally security, the crowd seemed to rally to his defense, chanting “CNN sucks” as he was ushered away.
The president paused to make sure that the victim in this scuffle was not harmed, and that’s laudable. But that display of concern does not absolve Trump from his consistent refusal to cool his audience’s passions, even as tensions are visibly on the rise. This attack on a journalist was not the only tussle to break out on Monday night and, if history is a guide, it won’t be the last.
As president, Trump has abandoned the incitement to violence that typified his earliest campaign rallies. Trump no longer fanaticizes about seeing protesters at his events stripped of their coats and thrown “out in the cold.” He doesn’t talk about how he’d like to “punch him in the face,” and he doesn’t promise to “pay the legal fees” incurred by those who commit violence in his name. But when he did, some of his fans took him both literally and seriously. What’s more, his incitement generated a counter-reaction from his opponents that was, in many ways, more violent than the aggressive response Trump inspired in his fans.
The president has not disavowed those remarks, nor has he shown any indication that he is willing to renounce his most undesirable supporters even when they engage in terrible acts of violence. This is not an impossible task, and it is not a standard reserved only for Donald Trump. Successful Republican lawmakers have somehow managed to condemn the biases and excesses of the press for decades without labeling them the “enemy of the people.” Their campaign rallies were not so frequently marred by violence and aggression that it has become the new normal to which we are slowly becoming inured. It is incumbent upon political observers to resist the temptation to see these outbreaks of savagery as the status quo of American political life. It’s not. This behavior is monstrous, unbecoming, and anathema to a mature and stable republic.
What’s most troubling about the outbreaks of violence in El Paso is that they occurred almost spontaneously and without much goading from Donald Trump. The reptilian passions that manifested in violent skirmishes were already simmering beneath the surface, and the participants knew their roles by heart. Even if he was so inclined, Trump might not be able to break the tensions inside these halls. This all might have gotten away from him.