Donald Trump’s inflammatory attacks on immigrants and his incitement of violence against protesters have unleashed social forces that have changed the dynamic of the presidential primary campaign. The cancellation of his Chicago rally on Friday concedes the fact that the groups he is trying to demonize are by no means cowed by his demagogy or by the threats of his supporters, who are prepared to physically intimidate protesters. But by becoming a lightning-rod for white racism, he has created a nativist movement that will only get worse as his campaign continues. On the Democratic side, the reaction to the Chicago rally has differentiated Clinton and Sanders more clearly than any number of debates on policies.
The energized resistance among nonwhite and immigrant groups who have become active politically to oppose his campaign is an extension of the social coalition that elected Obama. After eight years of a black president, nonwhite citizens feel empowered and enfranchised unlike any other period in American history. These undaunted protesters carry forward the hard-fought victories of the Civil Rights movement, which will have an impact long after Obama’s presidency ends, and will shape the future of American politics for decades to come.
Trump’s rhetoric backfired spectacularly on him when his planned Chicago event was cancelled minutes before it was due to start, once it became clear that protesters made up a large section of the audience. The New York Times reported: “Hundreds of protesters, who had promised to be a visible presence here and filled several sections of the arena, let out an elated, unstopping cheer. Mr. Trump’s supporters, many of whom had waited hours to see the Republican front-runner, seemed stunned and slowly filed out in anger.” There were a few scuffles with frustrated Trump supporters as they left a car park, but security concerns were said to be over-rated and police denied there was any problem controlling the crowd.
Before the rally was cancelled, a war of words between Trump supporters and protesters had created a highly-charged atmosphere inside the venue, but the altercations remained non-violent even though the event had been provocatively staged at “a giant arena at a richly diverse university in the heart of deeply blue Chicago, guaranteeing he would have protesters and heavy media coverage,” according to the Washington Post. “The audience was the most diverse to ever gather for a Trump rally, a rainbow of skin tones with at least a dozen young women wearing hijabs and a few men in turbans. The crowd was mostly high school and college students from the area, along with a number of local activists and a number of different organization efforts.”
In past events, Trump has publicly attacked protesters, inciting physical violence against them. In Cedar Woods, Iowa, he encouraged his supporters to “knock the crap out of them,” promising to pay for any legal fees, and at one event in North Carolina, a supporter punched a black protester in the face as he was being led out of a rally by police. The man told CNN: “Yes, he deserved it. The next time we see him, we might have to kill him. We don’t know who he is. He might be with a terrorist organization.” The attacker was later charged with assault, disorderly conduct and communicating threats.
Earlier on Friday in St. Louis, Missouri, Trump was visibly frustrated by a group of demonstrators who shut down his rally for a full ten minutes. “The protest, a coordinated effort involving an estimated 40-50 activists, began with the coordinated drop of a large banner from the balcony of the Opera House. One said, ‘Caution, racism lives here’ and the other said ‘Stop the hate.’ The protest also included about 10-15 people on the lower level ripping off their shirts to reveal T-shirts they’d been wearing underneath with anti-Trump slogans.”
Hundreds of people had gathered around the Peabody opera house in downtown St. Louis, many not able to get into the over-capacity venue while others were there to protest. Videos posted to social media showed Trump supporters hurling racial slurs and anti-Islamic remarks at protesters and reporters, but after the event a few dozen people lingered and engaged in a series of loud but civil debates.
The Guardian’s Sarah Kendzior reported: “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.”
Hillary Clinton essentially accepted Trump’s own spin on the events by blaming political division rather than Trump’s inflammatory role. In a statement issued early Saturday morning she condemned “divisive rhetoric” in general without mentioning Trump by name. She then bizarrely referred to Dylan Roof’s shooting of nine African American churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina. “The families of those victims came together and melted hearts in the statehouse and the Confederate flag came down,” Clinton said. “That should be the model we strive for to overcome painful divisions in our country.” Princeton professor Eddie S. Glaude Jr. criticized Clinton’s response as “more concerned about the fact that protesters fought back than with the racism and nativism of Trump’s rallies.”
Later Saturday morning she called Trump an “arsonist,” but then equated the anger of Trump’s followers with the protesters, marking her as a true member of the establishment. “I know it’s no secret there are people angry on the left, on the right,” she said. “But I believe with all my heart the only way to fix what’s broken is to stand together against the forces of division and discrimination that are trying to divide America between us and them.”
Sanders, by contrast, told supporters: “We’re not going to let Donald Trump or anyone else divide us.” The Chicago Tribune reported: “More than an hour after the Trump event was nixed, Sanders spoke to supporters in southwest suburban Summit. Sanders … said he would defeat the Republican in the general election ‘because the American people are not going to accept a president who insults Mexicans, who insults Muslims’.”
In a statement released the following day, Sanders wrote: “Obviously, while I appreciate that we had supporters at Trump’s rally in Chicago, our campaign did not organize the protests. What caused the protests at Trump’s rally is a candidate that has promoted hatred and division against Latinos, Muslims, women, and people with disabilities, and his birther attacks against the legitimacy of President Obama. What caused the violence at Trump’s rally is a campaign whose words and actions have encouraged it on the part of his supporters.”
Sanders’ clarity is in line with the inclusive and egalitarian nature of his campaign. At a rally at George Mason University in Virginia, after a student named Remaz Abdelgader started questioning him about Islamophobia, Sanders invited her on the stage, gave her a hug, then allowed her to speak from the podium. Linda Sarsour, director of a Muslim online organizing platform, and co-founder of the New York Muslim Democratic Club, told Democracy Now that Sanders has “allowed Muslims to be surrogates and speak at a large rally with about 10,000 people. He’s been meeting with people from multiple segments of the Muslim community. He is making—he’s finally saying, ‘You’re part of this—our community. You’re part of our nation. I want to hear what you have to say.’ That’s all we’re asking for.”