When two of the most unpopular and least trusted candidates for President of the United States become the nominees of the two major parties, some ugliness is bound to happen. One of those candidates Donald Trump has ratcheted up the ugliness at his rallies by encouraging his supporters to physically abuse protesters. And some of those supporters gleefully followed his urging. Trump has done much to lower the bar of political discourse and common decency on the campaign trail.
But some protesters have responded in kind. Recently, they have egged, spat on, shoved and punched Trump supporters. Some snatched campaign caps from the heads of Trump fans and burned them. Others engaged in random acts of destruction by smashing several cars. Their defenders claim that Trump is to blame. I would agree… but only in part. Trump created an atmosphere in which violence was condoned. But that does not ethically justify the counter-violence.
As a follower of Jesus I condemn all violence against people, excusing none of it. I don’t expect those who don’t have faith in Jesus to follow his example or heed his words, as much as I want them to do so. Still, as one who confesses Jesus as Lord, I reject responding to Trumpian abuse with anti-Trump abuse. I think all violence on the stage Trump has built is wrong in and of itself and I further believe nothing good is likely to come of it.
But let me be clear about exactly what I am condemning.
I do not sweepingly condemn all protests that involve property damage. Indeed, I would call attention to Jesus’ protest in the Temple. His prophetic demonstration against the profiteers in that place of worship involved more than shouted words. He knocked over tables, spilling the money of the businessmen all over the place. Jesus chased off the animals that were being sold, causing chaos and likely property loss. But the words and the disruptive deeds of Jesus were closely related and powerfully conveyed his message.
Any acts of property damage must be tactical, serving a broader aim, for them to be rightly regarded as truly meaningful. Otherwise they deserve to be viewed as self-indulgent, gratuitous destruction. Random wreckage doesn’t help protesters make a point. It creates an inarticulate mess that distracts from any legitimate point that otherwise might be made. If there is no clear message carried by the property damage then the perpetrators will be seen as nothing more than rioters.
Something meaningful was being said when peace activists cut through security fences, entered a nuclear facility, splashed human blood on walls, and sprayed spray-painting messages reading “Woe to an Empire of Blood, ” “Disarm Transform, ” and, “The Fruit of Justice is Peace.” When protesters took hammers and beat the cones of warheads, damaging them, the culturally literate among us recalled the biblical words about “beating swords into plowshears.” Words and actions walked hand in hand, reinforcing one another to foster a more powerful presentation of the anti-war point being made.
But when protestors violently frail about at a Trump rally, their message –whatever it might be- is lost. I would say the same of the Black Bloc who show up at otherwise peaceful demonstrations. I agree with Chris Hedges who labeled them as “the cancer of the Occupy movement” who “confuse acts of petty vandalism and a repellent cynicism with revolution.” Those who indulge in confrontation without content and destruction without a discernable message are no better than the undercover cops who coax protesters to break store windows or damage cars and then arrest them. The destruction plays into the hands of the very forces that the protestors oppose.
Of course the anti-Trump violence has its defenders who contend the assaults are “logical.” While the violent actions of the anti-Trump protesters may have been virtually inevitable, they are not “logical.” Or ethical. Or wise. The violence response is not justifiable simply because Trump is not a typical politician and the political divide is not just more of what we have seen for decades. Yes, Trump is worse than what we have seen in our lifetime. He deserves opposition. But the need for opposition is not a warrant for violence.
Further, violence at protests are not justified just because more is involved than just keeping Trump out of the White House. Certainly, “the forces underpinning his rise will remain, ” whether Trump is elected or not. But those forces are not going to be defeated by breaking car windows and burning campaign caps or throwing eggs. Dignifying the haphazard harm and destruction by appealing to the need to fight racism, nativism, the attacks on science, far-right media and more makes as much sense as beating your dog because you neighbor plays loud music late at night. The action doesn’t connect with the problem.
Those who argue that violence is more effective than nonviolence simply haven’t done their homework. Sure, on rare occasions violence has effected lasting change. More often, however, it has failed, often making bad situations worse. Nonviolent interventions have a better record. I would urge those who think otherwise to read Erica Chenoweth and Marie J. Stephan’s fine study Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict. Among the reasons violent efforts are less effective is that they are more likely to repel allies who are not as radical but essential for a successful campaign. Violence undercuts broad sympathy for just causes. Anyone who fails to recognize this fact is blind to the nature of American society.
Donald Trump far exceeds the characteristic awfulness of many American politicians. He deserves to be resisted. But the most effective resistance will not involve breaking glass or drawing blood. It will come from voices raised on behalf of justice and symbolic actions –some which may need to be disruptive- that call for the respect of all peoples and the advancement of the common good. Our means must reflect the ends we seek or what we get in the end is likely to be something what no one truly wants.