SAN DIEGO – Last Friday, my heart sank as I stared in disbelief at images on television of a political rally in Chicago that nearly devolved into a riot.
As someone who was in his crib at the time of the 1968 Democratic National Convention, I’d never seen anything like it before. And, with any luck, I’ll never see anything like it again.
But who are we kidding? If Donald Trump is elected president, a once outlandish scenario that seems more plausible with every passing day, this could be the new normal. And if he is not elected, there might be even more unrest – by Trump supporters.
It’s time to be honest about the consequences of having a leading presidential candidate tell impressionable supporters – as Trump did a few weeks ago at a rally in Iowa – that if they happen to see someone in the audience about to hurl a tomato, they should “knock the crap out of them” and that he would “pay for the legal fees” of anyone who got arrested.
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As police in Chicago descended on the scene and the shoving matches between Trump supporters and anti-Trump protesters spilled out of the arena and into the streets, it felt like our entire political system had changed for the worse.
It also felt as if something precious had been taken from me. I couldn’t shake the feeling that Trump had – with his boorishness and hateful rhetoric – somehow hijacked my country.
Incidentally, for the record, this country is more mine than his. My family has been here much longer, and it has paid its dues. When Trump’s mother came from Scotland and his paternal grandparents arrived from Germany, my ancestors were already here. Both my parents, three grandparents, and four great-grandparents were born in the United States.
And despite what Trump says about Mexican immigrants, as far as I know, there isn’t one criminal in my family tree. Imagine the odds.
Back in the Windy City, it seemed as if half the crowd was itching to mix it up with the other half. All that kindling, just waiting for a spark to set it ablaze. And all it took was an announcement over the loudspeaker that the event had been canceled, and that Trump would not appear.
The madness was a microcosm of what’s wrong with Washington and, for that matter, much of the country.
Both sides come to such protests having surrounded themselves only with voices they agree with, and having tuned out opposing perspectives. They’re so eager to express their concerns that neither is interested in listening to what the other is saying. Each tribe is so convinced that it is morally superior to the other that it feels comfortable portraying its opponents as morally deficient. Each camp sees the same set of circumstances in radically different ways; for the left, it was Trump’s hateful rhetoric that fired up his supporters but, for the right, this was about an attempt by protesters to stamp out speech they disagreed with. Finally, there is no empathy; that is, no one seems able to tolerate, let alone, identify with the concerns and viewpoint of the opposing camp.
Americans have to learn to disagree – even passionately – without descending into chaos. What occurred in Chicago is an example of what can happen when we don’t pull that off.
In the aftermath of the unrest, the media are focused on the wrong thing. They ask who is responsible for the violence.
We all are. Every American contributed to this debacle. Because we helped Trump get this far by dismissing him and cheering him and voting for him and making excuses for his outrageous statements. Because we didn’t take him seriously, and we swallowed the outrageous claim by House Speaker Paul Ryan that the Republican Party was an innocent bystander, as if it didn’t have a history of scaring up votes by exploiting fear – over immigration, or affirmative action, or same-sex marriage, or other hot-button issues. And because when Trump veered into territory that should have ended his campaign, as with his initial reluctance to denounce white supremacist David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan, we were too quick to let him off the hook and change the subject.
The crazy uncle who spouts off about what’s wrong with the world from his barstool is now the provocateur who starts barroom brawls. And people get hurt. Sure they do. After all, when you cuddle with bullies and thugs, you wind up with bruises and black eyes.
Ruben Navarrette’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.