Back in 2010, during the special election contest between Martha Coakley and Scott Brown, among other election activities, I stood for many hours on street corners with Coakley banners. I and my colleagues, and probably many reading this as well, suddenly found ourselves subject to an ongoing torrent of taunts, threats, “finger pointing,” and other verbal harassment by a seemingly unending stream of mostly guys in pick-up trucks with American flags waving from the cargo hold. While our local Brown supporters were generally a bit less aggressive, there was nevertheless an edge to their presence on the same or opposing street corners that was new in two decades of experience of local politics in our sleepy Metrowest town, and very disconcerting. The “Brownies” as we began to call all of them, were all about “Taking America Back,” and the level of aggressiveness was alarming.
While Scott Brown was off-putting and wrong in so many ways, he was not demagogic and so the fervor and implicitly violent enthusiasm of some of his supporters was unexpected. But I, and everyone I knew, responded to these taunts and provocations with friendly waves and “Have a nice day.” We were all very clear that we did not want to get into reacting in some equivalent or otherwise hostile manner that would further provoke them. Nothing ever escalated, but the unrelenting ugliness of some of the Brown supporters made it that much more difficult to accept that Scott Brown won and I remember writing a letter to the editor of our local weekly saying, essentially, that despite the ugliness of the campaign and the setback of a Brown win, we would regroup for the next election and that we would not “go back.” Thankfully, Elizabeth Warren won the rematch with Brown in 2012.
Fast forward to today and think about the tone and example being set by Donald Trump for the upcoming general election. Unlike the (thankfully) relatively milk-toasty Scott Brown, Trump has been pretty systematically priming and encouraging very aggressive and often violent behavior by some of his supporters. Trump is a demagogue, who has shown he is naturally inclined to encourage and leverage the intimidation and violence amongst his supporters in is quest for personal glory and power. (See the very interesting analysis of this here: http://www.vox.com/polyarchy/2016/3/1/11140876/trump-demagogue).
Given the preview we saw in the Brown campaign, and given how Trump is acting, I believe that we are in for a very, very nasty general election campaign, not just here in Massachusetts, but all around the country. The same people who were so threateningly “juiced” by Scott Brown’s candidacy, are likely to be much further amped-up. And, nationwide, if Trump becomes the Republican nominee, the stakes for his supporters will be much higher than in the primary. The level of aggressiveness, threatening and intimidating behavior could dramatically escalate.
So as Democrats, the question is, do we need to prepare for this? Do we need to begin preparing for the possibility of a startling level of aggressive confrontation, intimidation, and provocation? I am beginning to think so.
Make no mistake, intense aggressiveness, even that which we have seen at Trump rallies, can be very intimidating. It can cause people to avoid being visible in support of one’s candidate. It can cause people to keep their heads down and uninvolved. It can keep people away from the polls. It can cause otherwise good and decent people to react badly or in ways that serve to escalate the threats and create further intimidation and reaction. In the face of mass and organized intimidation, it is not enough simply to steel oneself to this seeming inevitability. In the context of a campaign, we must look to help one another and all of our voters and communities to manage and cope with tactics that are anathema to a civil democratic process.
Back in the Vietnam and civil rights era, the threat and reality of violence was ubiquitous, from the threat of being assaulted for being a hippie, to horrible beatings and murders of civil rights workers and champions.
Martin Luther King and many others modeled non-violence and positive, peaceful engagement as the alternative and best path towards a better future. This model was really hard. Adopting it not just in theory, but in practice, required extensive discussion, reflection, training, and reinforcement. It was extensively taught and work-shopped in communities around the country and reinforced with trainings before every demonstration or sit-in, etc. Still, many people had their heads bashed-in or worse. Without this modeling, training, and ongoing reinforcement and solidarity with others pursuing the same peace course, the capacity of people to stand-up to the intimidation would have been impossible. Back then, especially horrifying was that often, public policy was misguided, and all too often government officials turned a blind eye to abuses – or even committed or sponsored some of them. Thankfully, this does not appear to be a major issue at this time. However, uprising and the type of campaign that Trump is leading is ominous enough all by itself, and we underestimate it at our peril.
It sickens me very much to say this, but I think we need to prepare ourselves for some of the worst (un)civil ugliness we have seen in many decades. Among other things, I would hope we would start discussing this at the state committee and town/city committee levels, in concert with statewide party leadership, as well as nationally. We might begin conversations with other civic organizations, community leaders, and officials. We should start planning trainings on how to deal with provocation and intimidation. The actions of individuals and some small groups at Trump rallies to date, as well as those at the larger intervention of anti-Trump protesters at the recent Chicago Trump event need to be understood and analyzed for whether or not, when and how, there are lessons to bring forward. It would be important to try to reach out to Republican Party organizations at local, state, and national levels to try to work out agreements on principles of civil campaign conduct, for instance.
If things do start moving in a menacing direction, we should be prepared to mobilize larger solidarity initiatives and public demonstrations designed to call-out and defuse the politics of demagogy and violent intimidation. If such politics do emerge, we should also be engaging with law enforcement. Obviously, all of this would need to be informed by and work to inform, the messaging and electoral strategy of the Democratic candidate.
It could well be, and I certainly hope, that this is an overreaction and that we have nothing to fear but fear itself, etc. But if not, we must go into this election prepared. I know from the experience of the Brown Campaign that the shock of the menacing and intimidation factor can have a major deterrent and disengaging effect on unwary and unprepared volunteers, communities, and voters. Mass intimidation can interfere with voter outreach and GOTV efforts, and keep our voters from the polls, and lead to electoral defeat.
There is a meme circulating through Facebook to the effect that, “If you ever wondered about the Civil Rights movement and what role you would have played in it, this is it.” Unfortunately, it looks like it’s time to dust off some of the old non-violent action manuals, update our knowledge and training for this new, emerging situation, and prepare to defend and promote our civil, voting, and constitutional rights in the context of the 2016 presidential election.
I can’t believe I just wrote that.