Sunday, May 28, 2017

Violence at a Trump Campaign Rally Spurs Lawsuits against the Candidate: A Case of Incitement?

Is it natural for people to become enraged at other people at political events? Is violence simply part of the territory? Even if war stems from political differences, a political rally is a long way from being on a battle-field. The psychology, I submit, should be very different, and yet some people at campaign rallies cross the line as if they have no control over their emotions and behavior. That some protesters and a Trump supporter sued U.S. President Donald Trump for his role in inciting violence at one of his campaign rallies makes the matter of rage and violence at political events more public, and thus subject to analysis. The issue, I submit, goes beyond whether Don Trump incited violence against protesters at his political rallies. 
In Ceder Rapids, Iowa on Feb 1, 2016 at a Trump-for-President rally, the candidate told supporters there to “knock the crap out of” anyone preparing to throw a tomato.” He added, “I promise you. I will pay for the legal fees. I promise. I promise.”[1] The next month, at a similar rally in Louisville, Kentucky, he bellowed, “Get ‘em out of here!” in response to several protesters interrupting his rally.[2] Matthew Heimbach, a Trump supporter, “gave a hard shove in the back” to Kashiya Nwanguama, “who had been holding up a poster depicting [Trump’s] face on the body of a pig.”[3] Implying that Trump had incited the violence, Heimbach would go on to say of Trump, “He knew what he was asking for.”[4] So Nwanguama and two other protesters sued Trump, contending incitement—the legal argument being that the candidate was legally liable because the violent Trump supporters had been acting as his agents. In fact, Heimbach also filed a civil suit against Trump, arguing “he was responsible for any injuries [Heimbach] might have inflicted because [Trump] directed him and others to take action.”[5]
According to Samuel Issacharoff, an instructor of constitutional law at New York University, the central issue raised by the federal civil suits “is how society should deal with the passions which are necessarily unleashed in political events. The courts bend over backward to protect the freedom of political exchange in this country, even when it’s ugly.”[6] Trump’s lawyers argued that the candidate’s public statements are protected by the First Amendment. Moreover, the lawyers contended that there was no evidence that Trump intended for his followers to harm anyone. As an eye-witness to another case of incitement at a Trump rally, I question this claim.
At the rally I attended, Trump repeatedly urged that protesters be taken out of the arena. At one point, a small section of protesters behind him interrupted, and he asked explicitly for his private security employees to remove the protesters. When one such employee later in the rally was removing a lone (Caucasian) protester who was wearing a KKK hood to protest Trump as a racist, Trump continued to bellow, “You’re disgusting!” even as a Black military man—a Trump supporter—jumped into the aisle, threw down the protester, and, in intense motions, literally stomped on the protester. I saw Trump watching the stomping as he was continuing to denigrate the protester. This, I contend, is particularly revealing: that the candidate was continuing to bash the protester while watching the violence. I was left with the clear impression that Donald Trump not only condoned and was inciting the violence, but also actually enjoyed it. I said to the black woman sitting next to me, referring to Trump, “I don’t think he values democratic principles.” Observing the Trump supporters in our area, I added, “I thought it was just hyperbole, but this really does feel like what the Nazi rallies must have been like.” The woman next to me shook her head in agreement and we both looked on in silence—both of us feeling the surreal nature of that particular rally.
So I do believe that Donald Trump as a candidate did not respect people who protested his candidacy. I suspect that his anger was directed at the disapproval itself. As for the military man who felt compelled to stomp on the protester, whom I think was a woman, the matter may go beyond the incitement, which I believe existed. Both the intensity of the anger of the Trump supporters at the rally directed to the (mostly isolated) cases of protest and the “flash-point” intense violence of the military man suggest to me that Issacharoff’s assumption that passions are necessarily unleashed in political events may be wrong. Heimbach’s legal argument may contain the assumption that he had no choice but to act as Trump’s agent at the rally in Kentucky, or at least that acting violently as Trump’s (self-appointed?) agent was normal for the type of occasion.
I question whether such extreme passions as can so easily “jump the fire line” onto violent acts are necessarily a part of political events—whether our expectation that such acts are just part of political life is valid. Alternatively, what we may be seeing is mental illness on full display thanks to the societal excuse of sorts that tacitly permits or normalizes rage at political events. It does not follow that just because someone holds a firm belief—whether it be political or religious—that violence-level anger inexorably kicks in against a “non-believer.” In the realm of religion, Feuerbach, a nineteenth-century European philosopher of religion, argues in his text, The Essence of Christianity, that faith contains a malevolent principle predicated on the salience of belief. That is, hatred toward non-believers is part and parcel of having faith in a belief, such as that God exists. Hence the many atrocities in the name of religion may stem from religious faith itself. I think we can broaden this out to any firmly held belief.
I do not find a reasonable enough basis for a person to feel severe or intense anger in the presence of a person merely disagreeing with a strongly-held belief, for homogeneity of belief is not part of the human condition. In other words, the expectation that you and I have that people should naturally believe what we respectively believe may be the underlying problem. The flawed assumption here may trigger the anger, which may actually be angst railing against the truth of the matter—that firmly holding a belief is not as important as we think or feel it to be, and that people are naturally going to have divergent beliefs. I don’t believe that the anger is a reflex against the latent (psychological or empirical) threat in the “I disagree with your belief.” Rather, I think we humans have an instinctual dislike of people who hold a divergent belief or opinion, yet the level of the dislike is not in itself, I submit, enough to trigger violence. Rather, flawed thinking in some people supports the fallacy of an expectation that people should naturally hold the same beliefs (especially one’s own!) and psychological pathology exaggerates the anger for some people such that they lapse into violence. Free speech should not give open license to normalizing this dysfunction at political events; in fact, the culprits, whether protesters or supporters, should be called out even just on their excessive emotion, and certainly the violence should be stopped as soon as it erupts. Continuing to denigrate the victim can thus be labeled as part of the pathology, rather than as natural to politics.

[1] David Zucchino, “A Trump Campaign Rally Led to Shoving, and Legal Wrangling, Too,” The New York Times, May 27, 2017.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.