If you’re thinking of protesting Donald Trump at or near one of his rallies, my advice is:
If you insist on your Constitutional right to peacefully assemble, I’ll absolutely defend your right to do it. I’ll defend anybody’s right to peacefully protest.
But if you want to exercise your right to protest Donald Trump in the vicinity of a Trump rally, I advise you to think again. It isn’t always wise to do something just to show you have a right to do it.
You may have every intention in the world of engaging in a peaceful protest. But you don’t have any control over whether the protest is peaceful. That decision rests with the most violent member of your group.
The most violent member may be somebody who lacks self-control. Or it may be somebody who, unlike you, believes in revolutionary violence, like the “black bloc” in the Occupy Wall Street protests or World Trade Organization protests.
Or they may well be infiltrators working for police or intelligence organizations or for the Trump campaign.
During the anti-Vietnam protests in the late 1960s and early 1970s, police infiltration was a real thing. A friend of mine told me of taking part in a peace march, and noticing that the two hippies in the line ahead of him were wearing the same kind of black shoes that state troopers wore. When they stopped to pick up rocks, my friend had the presence of mind to run into a coffee shop nearby.
Police immediately descended on the marchers, clubbed some of them and took them away. When my friend came out of the shop a hour later, nobody was left but police standing around smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee, including the two apparent hippies.
Part of the Watergate scandal involved Richard Nixon agents posing as Democrats and trying to manipulate the 1972 nominating process from within. A typical example is that Donald Segretti, a Nixon operative, send out letters purportedly approved by Edmund Muskie, the leading candidate, accusing Hubert Humphrey and conservative Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson.
Roger Stone, a famous Republican dirty-tricks specialists, got his start in politics as a college student playing dirty tricks on behalf of Richard Nixon—for example, making a campaign contribution in the name of a Nixon rival in the name of the Young Socialist Alliance, then mailing the receipt to the Manchester Union-Leader.
All that aside, any violent incident that happens in connection with your protest, whether or not it’s your fault, is going to be blamed on you. Donald Trump thrives on violent confrontations, regardless of who starts them, because they validate what he tells his followers.
A good rule in politics is: Don’t do what your enemy wants you to do.
If you are a campus radical who thinks you have a right to silence people who express evil ideas, you’re wrong. You don’t have such a right.
You may have been encouraged to think that you that right by weak college administrators, who cave in to your demands to avoid trouble.
But the Trump campaign is not going to cave in. They welcome violence, and its supporters are probably better at violence than you are.
Don’t do what your enemy wants you to do.
If you are a poor, educated person who is angry about being a victim of injustice, I have more sympathy for you than for the campus radical, but my advice is the same.
No matter how much of a victim of injustice you are, or think you are, that does not generate a right to engage in assault or vandalism. If you are full of anger, learn ways to channel your anger into effective political action.
Speaking as a mild-mannered, law-abiding, respectable middle-class white male property owner, I would never justify political mob violence.
But as a student of American history, I admit that mob violence has influence politics and policy, usually in bad ways but sometimes in ways I approve of.
From an amoral, Machiavellian perspective, mob violence only works when (1) the mob represents the opinion of the majority or (2) people in authority choose appeasement to temporarily restore peace.
Neither of these conditions applies to anti-Trump violence. The majority of the American public is not with you, and Donald Trump gets no benefit from appeasing you.
If you are a hoodlum looking for an excuse to go on a rampage, you probably won’t be reading this either, and I have nothing to say to you anyhow.
Anti-Trump Protesters Attack Democracy in San Jose by Conor Friedersdorf for The Atlantic.
Protesters Assault Trump Supporters With Eggs, Bottles, Punches After Rally by Jacob Rascon and Ali Vitali for NBC News.
How Should America Resist a Fascist? by Jamelle Bouie for Salon. (Hat tip to Jack Clontz)
Riots are destructive, dangerous and scary—but can lead to serious social reforms by German Lopez for Vox. But only sometimes and always at a price of a dangerous backlash, especially if the rioters are in the minority. Donald Trump would be much weaker without the backlash.
Democracy Is a Way of Avoiding Violence by Ian Welsh.
As an example of constructive mob violence, I would list the mobs in the 1850s who prevented the Fugitive Slave Law from being enforced. As an example of typical mob violence
Photo via The Nation