History is a moving train: From Nixon and Goldwater to Donald Trump and the Age of Obama
American political culture celebrates the idea of protest and dissent. But it is often extremely hostile to the dissenters and protesters themselves.
America loves its civic martyrs and freedom fighters when they are dead. But it imprisons and punishes them while they are alive.
To canonize an American radical in the country’s public memory involves robbing them of their radicalism. The myth-making process has limits on how much truth it allows to be spoken to power.
The political rodeo surrounding Donald Trump, the American Il Duce and proto fascist, carnival barker, right-wing con man, is being met with protests across the United States. As I witnessed firsthand in Chicago, a loose coalition of young people including Black Lives Matter activists, Muslims, Latinos, white progressives, and other forward-thinking and progressively minded individuals are saying “no!” to Trump’s bigotry, nativism, and racism. Even while they are assaulted by Trump’s thugs, these protesters continue to resist. Their behavior is in the best tradition of American civil society and free speech.
Unfortunately, large swaths of the American public are not supportive of them.
Donald Trump's frontrunner status for the Republican nomination hasn't been compromised by the incidents of violence that have occurred at some of his rallies, perhaps because few Republican primary voters put the blame on his supporters. Sixty percent of Republican primary voters -- and eight in 10 Trump supporters - place most of the blame for these incidents on the protesters.
Most registered voters overall have heard a lot about these incidents of violence, and they are more likely to blame the protesters and Trump supporters equally. Forty-three percent of registered voters blame both sides, while 29 percent of voters think it's the protesters who are mostly to blame for these incidents and 23 percent mostly blame Donald Trump's supporters.
Fifty percent of Republican primary voters, and eight in 10 Trump supporters, approve of how Trump is handling the violence. By contrast, among voters overall two in three disapprove of how Donald Trump is handling these incidents.
Trump is "very responsible" for violent incidents at his campaign rallies, 37 percent of American voters say, while 27 percent say he is "somewhat responsible." Another 12 percent say he is "not so responsible" and 22 percent say he is "not at all responsible."
At the same time, 39 percent of voters say protesters at Trump rallies are "very responsible" for violence, and another 39 percent say protesters are "somewhat responsible."
And 30 percent of voters say Trump supporters are "very responsible" for violence, while 40 percent say supporters are "somewhat responsible."
"Donald Trump may say hired instigators have brought violence to his rallies, but 64 percent of American voters are laying the blame squarely on the candidate, while 78 percent are blaming the protestors," Malloy said.
America’s pluralist tradition has always existed in tension with protest and similar behaviors.
Hostility to protests is also a reflection of the deep veins of conservatism and conformity that coexist alongside America’s long tradition of consensus liberalism (and moments of mainstream “radicalism”). And of course, anxieties about protests are a reflection of how struggles by outsider groups and the less powerful (including people of color, women, LGBTQ, the poor and working classes) for more freedom and equality are viewed by the in group and the powerful as threats.
Donald Trump’s language of violent action is evocative of America’s last era of mass social movement activity. Trump is channeling 1960s and early 1970s right-wing screeds and bromides against the civil rights and the anti-war movements. He is a 21st century version of Goldwater, Wallace, and Nixon. This is all just recycled “hippie punching” updated for the age of social media, reality TV, birtherism, Fox News, and Barack Obama.
The “outside agitators” of the black freedom struggle are now the “disruptors” at Trump’s rallies. Trump encourages and celebrates his supporters who assault protesters. The American Il Duce yearns for the “good old days” when “people like that” would be “taken out on stretchers” from his rallies. Black conservatives are at the vanguard of the violence at Trump’s rallies. Trump also has a group of neo brown shirts, The Lion Guard, who are pledged to defend his cause and person. This collective group of political hoodlums is Nixon’s construction workers who pounced on anti-war protesters in 1970 … but without the hard hats.
Writing about the 1964 Republican presidential convention, the American civil rights pioneer Jackie Robinson described a scene whose chaos and racism could easily be applied to Donald Trump’s rallies some 50 years later:
A new breed of Republicans had taken over the GOP. As I watched this steamroller operation in San Francisco, I had a better understanding of how it must have felt to be a Jew in Hitler’s Germany.
The same high-handed methods had been there.
The same belief in the superiority of one religious or racial group over another was here. Liberals who fought so hard and so vainly were afraid not only of what would happen to the GOP but of what would happen to America. The Goldwaterites were afraid – afraid not to hew strictly to the line they had been spoon-fed, afraid to listen to logic and reason if it was not in their script.
I will never forget the fantastic scene of Governor Rockefeller’s ordeal as he endured what must have been three minutes of hysterical abuse and booing which interrupted his fighting statement which the convention managers had managed to delay until the wee hours of the morning. Since the telecast was coming from the West Coast, that meant that many people in other sections of the country, because of the time differential, would be in their beds. I don’t think he has ever stood taller than that night when he refused to be silenced until he had had his say.
It was a terrible hour for the relatively few black delegates who were present. Distinguished in their communities, identified with the cause of Republicanism, an extremely unpopular cause among blacks, they had been served notice that the party they had fought for considered them just another bunch of “niggers.” They had no real standing in the convention, no clout. They were unimportant and ignored. One bigot from one of the Deep South states actually threw acid on a black delegate’s suit jacket and burned it. Another one, from the Alabama delegation where I was standing at the time of the Rockefeller speech, turned on me menacingly while I was shouting “C’mon Rocky” as the governor stood his ground. He started up in his seat as if to come after me. His wife grabbed his arm and pulled him back.
“Turn him loose, lady, turn him loose,” I shouted.
I was ready for him. I wanted him badly, but luckily for him he obeyed his wife. . . .”
The fans ticked off Trump’s enemies list – the Nafta trade brokers, “the establishment”, the Republican party, Barack Obama – but rarely expressed personal hostility to anyone, even to the protesters passing by. They were “Midwestern nice” – until the doors closed, and the line became a mob.
St Louis is as beset with racial strife as it was during the Ferguson protests, and both outside and inside the Peabody, veterans of those protests had returned to take on Trump. Protesters held signs and chanted slogans as the crowd angrily claimed them as targets. Trump fans screamed racial slurs, including the N-word, at the protesters of many races and backgrounds. Mothers and fathers put their children aside to get in fistfights with activists, and fellow Trump fans cheered them on.
Several Trump fans vowed that the next time, they would come armed. Some warned that if Trump was not chosen by Republicans, a militia would rise up to take him to power. When an evicted protester appeared at the doors of the Peabody, it was like a scene out of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery: gazing down at a sea of rage, the demonstrator descended the stairs and the crowd tensed to pounce.
The anxiety, hostility, and less than uniform support many Americans are displaying toward those who actively stand against Donald Trump at his rallies and other events is a reminder of the divides in public opinion that existed toward the civil rights movement and the broader black freedom struggle.
For example, in comparing the American public’s attitudes about issues related to immigration and “undocumented residents” to public opinion during the civil rights movement, Imagine 2050 notes how:
A half century ago, polls found strikingly similar results with regard to civil rights. In spite of gaining the approval of some 55% of Americans in the spring of 1954, five years later a majority believed that the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education “caused a lot more trouble than it was worth.” During the 1960s a Gallup Poll found most Americans gradually came to support “racial equality in public places” but a consistent plurality wanted to take a “go slow” approach to racial change. In the South, not surprisingly, Gallup found that 80% of those polled in 1964 disapproved of civil rights legislation.
In a review of public attitudes during the same era, Gallup highlights the tension between support for the freedom fighters at Selma and broader attitudes toward full equality and civil rights for black Americans:
Gallup reported in February 1965 that, when asked about the Civil Rights Act specifically, 42% overall believed the federal government was moving too fast in guaranteeing “Negro” voting rights and the right of “Negroes” (the term used in the question) to be served in public places such as restaurants, hotels and theaters, while just 25% thought it was not moving fast enough.
But despite all these reservations, views about what occurred in Selma were another matter. By a 48% to 21% margin, a Harris poll in May 1965 found its respondents saying they sided more with the civil rights groups involved than with the state of Alabama. Not unexpectedly, virtually all of the African-American respondents sided more with the demonstrators (95%), but the balance of opinion among whites was also clearly with them rather than with the state of Alabama (46% to 21%).
Martin Luther King Jr. is now American royalty. However, it should not be forgotten that he was one of the most unpopular figures in American society—despised by white America as well as many African-American elites and others—at the time of his murder.
Ultimately, “history is a moving train”—one that we are all on together.
People who are well-behaved, obedient, and only “work within the system” rarely change society for the better. There is also a deep tension between how dominant American society reconciles its view of itself with the actions taken by those people who struggled (and often died) to force the country to become a more inclusive, fair, and just democracy.
The black, brown, yellow, red, and white Americans who are standing up against Donald Trump’s proto fascism and political thuggery may not be universally embraced by many Americans at the present moment. But the anti-Trump protesters are on the right side of history. They are an extension of the civil rights, anti-war, environmental, feminist, gay rights, and other movements that fought for the dignity and humanity of all people.
Those who either do not see or understand that fact will simply, as many have had to do in the near past and present, be forced to catch up with the rest of us. Some will struggle. Others will be recalcitrant as they embrace revanchist conservatism. But most, who compose the true “silent majority,” will be forced—no matter much they resist—into the present and future.