In a nation conceived in a violent revolution, and whose popular culture revels in entertainment violence, it should perhaps come as no surprise that the presidential frontrunner of one of our two major political parties is carving a path to victory fueled in part by aggression. And yet the political fortunes of Donald J. Trump, with his calls to fisticuffs and worse, continue to shock.
After a week marked by scuffles at his campaign rallies, and controversy over his campaign manager’s manhandling of a female reporter, Trump is riding high, having just swept most of the primaries held on Tuesday, even defeating a sitting U.S. senator in his own state. Trump is winning not despite this incitement; he is winning partly because of it.
There is little doubt that Trump’s racially charged and incendiary rhetoric is the legacy of movement conservatism’s nurturing of resentment among a significant faction of white Americans unnerved by cultural shifts that empower people long shunted to the margins, whether by virtue of race, religion, or gender. Yet Trump’s triumph relies not on factional resentment alone. He is also tapping into a broad national trait: Americans’ love of violence. For that, we must all take responsibility.
We are nation that has seen the lynch mob and the Trail of Tears, school shootings and gang warfare, police killings of unarmed civilians, open-carry gun laws, and one of the highest murder rates by gun of any Western nation.
We are a nation whose political history is marred by assassinations and assassination attempts—always attributed to the poor mental health or ideology of the lone assassin, and rarely followed by the question: Why do we have so many?
Even as we bemoan all the incidents of violence against black people, against women, against little school children, a check of most Americans’ entertainment habits reveals that even the most docile among us find our diversion in murder and mayhem. Our most popular professional sport is a spectacle of large men ramming into each other, relying on the willingness of players to risk traumatic head injury.
I do not mean to suggest that the depiction of violence should not exist in dramas high and low. Violence is an unfortunate fact of life nearly everywhere—but in America it is virtually worshipped. Many of our highest-grossing movies drip with blood. And let’s not even get started on the video games.
Donald Trump, showman that he is, instinctually knows all this. It is a fact inescapable to anyone who watches television ratings as closely as does the likely Republican standard-bearer.
Trump should have known what to expect when his campaign planned a rally in the heart of Chicago, at a public university with a racially diverse student body, and then called it off after the room was filled with Trump supporters and a significant number of mostly non-white Trump opponents.
For Trump, it was the inevitable outcome of his increasingly violent rhetoric against those who disrupt his rallies to challenged his attacks on immigrants and Muslims, among others. Trump claimed unconvincingly that law enforcement officials urged him to cancel, an assertion that Chicago police deny. But how could Trump not have anticipated the mayhem that would ensue when his supporters, who had waited hours for his appearance, were told he would not make it because of the ostensible threat posed by protesters — the very kinds of people whom Trump, in past appearances, has said deserve to be “punch[ed] in the face” and “taken out on a stretcher”?
The mainstream media are now openly speculating on the possibility of violence, either in the streets or inside the hall, at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, especially as certain GOP elites maneuver to deprive Trump of the nomination. Comparisons are being made to the Democratic National Convention of 1968, but these are not apt.
Back then, Hubert Humphrey—the Democratic presidential nominee whose legitimacy was disputed by large numbers of young protesters in the streets of Chicago—did not call for police to beat his detractors (as they did). No party standard-bearer or leader suggested to disgruntled party regulars that they should punch out members of the media, despite the blow that then landed on Dan Rather.
With the Trump candidacy, violence is not merely the outcome of a toxic campaign; it’s the show, it’s the game. A feature, not a bug. And a savvy, cynical calculation of the kind of show that turns America on.