Political Violence Returns to the Forefront of American Democracy

On the one hand, Trump is something totally new in American politics – while, on the other, he is the medium through which dangerous phenomena that seemingly disappeared are returning to the fore.

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A Trump rally in Virginia, at which a supporter held aloft a mask of rival Hillary Clinton, Oct. 22, 2016.
A Trump rally in Virginia, at which a supporter held aloft a mask of rival Hillary Clinton, Oct. 22, 2016.Credit: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

The 2016 election campaign, which is ending Tuesday, has become a global obsession thanks to an endless series of scandalous statements and deliberate provocations by Republican candidate Donald Trump against the political establishment, the media, and large sectors of the American public. But the significance of Trump’s behavior goes far beyond the shattering of long-standing conventions of politeness and of mutual respect between presidential candidates: After two generations, this campaign has reintroduced political violence to the forefront of American democracy.

Trump’s rallies, both during the primaries and afterward, were rife with displays of physical aggression aimed at anyone who came to protest against him and at journalists considered to be critical of his views. NBC correspondent Katy Tur needed Secret Service protection in order to escape from a rally at which the candidate assailed her. At a campaign event in Minnesota on Sunday, one of his supporters sported a shirt proposing the lynching of journalists.

Trump himself encourages his supporters to beat up his opponents, and even promised to pay for their legal defense. At a certain point he even suggested that supporters of the Second Amendment – which grants citizens the right to bear arms – could prevent Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton from changing this part of the Constitution. The more extreme the campaigning became, the more the blatant use of violent threats spilled over beyond the realm of Trump’s own rallies.

Republican Senator Richard Burr, who is in a tight race for reelection in North Carolina against his Democratic rival, was recorded as saying as he walked into a gun shop that “Nothing made me feel better” than seeing a magazine about rifles “with a picture of Hillary Clinton on the front of it." And, he added, "I was a little bit shocked at that – it didn’t have a bulls-eye on it.”

All over the United States extreme-right groups promise to come armed to polling stations on Election Day in order to “monitor” the voting and to prevent “irregularities” that would keep Trump from winning. Even if this is only a matter of threats, as is often the case with this candidate, their objective is clear: to silence opposition to him and to scare the voters.

Violence is not new in American politics. In the past the U.S. has known bloody election campaigns, including the mass murder of voters. In August 1855, at an event dubbed “Bloody Monday,” 22 Catholic immigrants were murdered by an angry mob of Protestants in Louisville, Kentucky, during the local elections. During those years, Catholics were considered an existential threat to American culture, and one of the dominant parties at the time took upon itself to stop the large wave of immigration of German- and Irish-born farmers, who had fled starvation and instability in their countries. The massacre was the climax of fear-mongering media and political campaigns against the electoral power of these new Americans, and was considered the most serious violence against immigrants in U.S. history.

In April 1873, after some local and state election campaigns in Louisiana ended without clear results, groups of whites refused to accept the possibility that their candidates had lost, and decided to take over governmental authorities by force. In the most serious incident, in the town of Colfax, a white paramilitary organization massacred members of the state militia, most of whom were black. About 100 people lost their lives, half of them shot in cold blood after surrendering.

Those are only two of the most extreme and famous incidents. But the fact is that for decades the elections in the South took place in the shadow of murderous violence against blacks who tried to exercise their right to vote. Every black citizen knew that when he tried to cast a ballot, he was taking his life in his hands.

When the Civil Rights Movement began in the 1960s and white volunteers joined the black rights organizations, they encountered the same kind of unbridled violence. In the summer of 1964, two New York Jews, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, were murdered in Mississippi together with black activist James Earl Chaney, while trying to help register blacks to vote. The state authorities refused to prosecute the murderers.

This sort of violence, which frequently arose during American election campaigns, ended only after the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, enabling the federal government to intervene actively in monitoring the voting in various states, and allowing blacks to vote without fear of a swift and cruel death.

The return of the discourse of lynching, political violence and scare tactics at polling stations demonstrates that as in many other aspects, on the one hand Trump is something totally new in American politics – while, on the other, he is the medium through which phenomena that seemingly disappeared are returning to the fore.

The anger of white voters who are afraid of losing control of the political process, the profound hostility toward the political rights of minorities, and the willingness to resort to any means to prevent America from changing have been quintessential characteristics of U.S. politics during most of the years of the country’s existence.

In recent decades, and certainly with the election of Barack Obama, it seemed as though the U.S. had succeeded in conveying to the general public the idea that the right to vote belongs to everyone. The past year has made it clear that the reality is far more complex.