On Friday last week, a group of left-wing protesters disrupted a Donald Trump rally in Chicago. After much confrontation and some scuffles in the arena, Trump decided to call off the rally, citing safety concerns. This led to a predictable split between liberals and leftists as to the protest's merits, with the latter crowing support, and the former anxiously fretting that it would only help Trump.
The liberals are wrong. Confronting Trump directly is a key part of an anti-Trump strategy.
The background here is the escalating violence at Trump rallies, which has many elites in a full-blown panic. They have settled on a two-pronged approach to #NeverTrump: First, earnest liberals should vote in Republican primaries where possible to try and keep him from winning the primary. Second, should that fail, leftists should meekly sit on their hands and wait for Trump to lose the general election, because disrupting his rallies only strengthens him.
The problem with the first point is that it regards Trump as some sort of deviant outlier in conservative politics — that Cruz or Rubio would be a return to normal politics, and panic could subside. In fact, as Brian Beutler argues, Trump is merely exposing the inherent contradictions of American conservatism — that the party has for decades pandered to the racist vote while lying to itself about what it was doing. There may be a non-trivial chance that President Trump would overturn constitutional democracy, but that is no reason for anxious liberals to help the GOP nominate Cruz or Rubio, who would shred the welfare state if elected. If some conservatives think Trump is such an extremist, and they can't stop their own party from nominating him, then they should support the Democratic nominee, who would be in a much better position to defeat Trump anyway.
The second argument is illustrated by my colleague Damon Linker:
Why would Trump embrace and encourage political violence instead of condemn it? Because he intuitively understands something that left-wing protesters apparently do not: When anarchy spreads, it's the toughest, most authoritarian candidate who benefits, since he gets to sell himself as the only one capable of restoring law and order. So if you want to stop Trump, don't contribute to stirring up trouble at his rallies. Understanding this isn't complicated. All it takes is rudimentary analysis of the political situation. [The Week]
Now, there may be something to the argument that protests will help Trump consolidate the primary. A recent poll found that 22 percent of likely Republican primary voters in Florida said the protests made them more likely to support Trump, while only 11 percent said the opposite. (Though one should note Trump's support in that same poll was 44 percent; very likely most of the anti-protest voters were already committed Trumpists.)
But more fundamentally, Trump was already well on his way to securing the nomination before the protests. At most, it's giving him a minor boost toward something he was probably going to win anyway.
The bigger problem with the anti-protest argument is that it is entirely supposition. Will voters in a general election flock to Trump because some of his rallies got disrupted? Says who? Let's present some analysis to the contrary.
First, as recently as the debate on Thursday last week, Trump was very clearly attempting to position himself as more moderate for the general election. These disruptions (which are very far from "anarchy," incidentally) are repeatedly confronting him with the fact that among his supporters are many violent racists who sucker-punch black men, shout "go to Auschwitz," beat minorities while yelling "Trump! Trump! Trump!" and on and on. The instances of Trump directly inciting violence against protesters make pretty compelling evidence that it's Trump and no one else who is responsible for this. And the overall effect will make it much harder for Trump to sell himself as anything but a deranged extremist, and thus less likely to win the general election. Conversely, sitting back could conceivably help Trump shed his primary image.
Second, historically speaking, one of the key strengths of fascism has been its air of invincibility, prowess, and dynamism. Trump has so far baldly defied just about every piece of political conventional wisdom and is still winning, and has gained enormous credibility among disaffected conservatives for it. The failed rally tarnishes the Trump legend. It makes him look like a coward and a chump. The politics of struggle, victory, defeat, and humiliation are no less real for the fact that they are not very amenable to polling data. As Dan O'Sullivan reported from the rally: "[I]t had not occurred to me that Trump could be backed down. But he has been, and everyone in that room knows it. Trump had been bested, his shtick as a tough guy corroded, his assets stripped."
What incipient fascism always calls for is a popular front. Liberals should remember that nonviolent protest is a part of free speech, and not panic because some leftists beat Trump at his own game.