May You Live in Interesting Times (Redux)

Like many bullies, Trump is fond of talking about “punching people in the face.” As a candidate he has advocated torturing captured terrorists and said he would instruct the U.S. military to kill their families. In Iowa a few weeks ago, Trump said to the crowd: “If you see somebody with a bag of tomatoes, just knock the crap out of them, would you?”  “I promise you,” he continued, “ I will pay for the legal fees.”

True, Trump has walked back some of his more extreme comments. But what matters is not so much his variable position on this or that issue but the atmosphere of demagogic menace he consistently nurtures. Trump is single minded in his cynical opportunism.  He calls it “the art of the deal.” It is really the art of exploiting the credulous, from the gullible bankers who fund his bankruptcy-prone casinos, to the students who have put down tens of thousands of dollars for the “massive scam” that was“Trump University,” to the poor tourists who are suckered out of a few dollars for the chintzy ersatz glamour of his bars and hotels. (Those ties! Those steaks! The “Billionaire Martini!”)

Bottom line: When considering the little — so far they have been little — eruptions of violence at Trump’s rallies, it is necessary not only to blame the lefties who hate Trump. It is also necessary to consider the tone, the atmosphere, the spirit that Trump creates among his supporters. I doubt that Powerline’s John Hinderaker has a more avid fan than me, but I think his column this weekend, “For Once, I am On Trump’s Side,” misses this dimension of the malevolence that is Donald Trump. “Blaming Trump for inflammatory rhetoric would make sense,” John wrote, “if his followers were roaming the streets attacking passers-by, or infiltrating Clinton and Sanders rallies and attacking Democrats. But they aren’t. Not a single such instance has occurred. On the contrary, every violent or disruptive event has involved people associated with the Democratic Party trying to prevent Trump from being heard. Whose inflammatory rhetoric has inspired them? Certainly not Trump’s. The brownshirts are all on the left, as usual.”

What about that Trump supporter, mentioned above, who assaulted a protestor and then said, “Next time we might have to kill him”?What about the current of exhortations to violence that course, obligato-like,  through Trump’s rhetoric? And speaking of Brownshirts, what about the rallies where he encouraged a whipped up crowd to extend their right arms in Nazi-like salute while pledging allegiance to the Great Leader?

“[I]t is shameful,” John concluded, “that many liberals, and even a few conservatives, have seized the opportunity to blame anti-Trump excesses on Trump.”  But I think Trump bears a great deal of responsibility for the character of his rallies. As Andy McCarthy put it in his NRO column yesterday, “It is ludicrous to argue that, because the hard Left is primarily responsible for the outbreak of chaos and violence that caused Donald Trump’s Chicago rally to be canceled last night, it is wrong to condemn the thuggery Trump often encourages at his appearances.”

True enough, blame in the first instance for the violence in St. Louis or Chicago must go the the lefty protestors, many of whom are aching for a reprise of 1968.  This is something that Ted Cruz articulated with consummate mastery in his response to the turmoil. “The responsibility for that [turmoil],” Cruz observed, “lies with protesters who took violence into their own hands.” But the story does not end there. For, as Cruz went on to observe, “in any campaign responsibility starts at the top. . . .  there’s no doubt that a candidate bears responsibility for the culture that is set from the top.” Donald Trump asked his supporters to pledge allegiance to him.  Cruz understands the metabolism of  American democracy more deeply.  Candidates for the presidency are not vying to be monarchs. They are submitting job applications to us, the people.  It is for them to pledge allegiance to us, their sovereigns.

All this is utterly lost in the populist bombast that swirls around Donald Trump like a mephitic fog.  But it lies at the very center of our freedom.  This is something that Ted Cruz understands and Donald Trump, if he does understand it, rejects. Andy McCarthy is right: “We have to be able to debate with intensity but shake hands afterwards in recognition of what unites us. A candidate who has us shaking fists is unfit.”