THE SIMPLE SOCIOLOGY BEHIND TRUMP RALLY VIOLENCE
In sociology we have a useful tool called the Thomas Theorem. It’s really a quote from the sociologist W. I. Thomas, “If men[people] define situations as real, they are real in their consequences,” that has become a sociological staple. This simple sentence really is a valuable tool for understanding the social world. As sociologists, we like to find the truth, the data, underlying any social phenomenon. Thomas reminds us that, whatever the “truth” may be in any given situation, how that truth is being perceived, regardless of how distorted that perception, may be of equal or even greater importance to understanding the situation. After all, how people define a situation influences how they respond, regardless of the validity of their perceptions.
The Thomas Theorem is a useful tool for understanding the violence taking place at Trump rallies. Why is it that Trump campaign rallies have a long history of violence, either on the part of Trump supporters or, more recently, protestors, while we just don’t see the same level of aggression displayed for other candidates. Bernie rallies have been huge, yet non-violent, so the size and density of the crowd is not necessarily the answer. Hillary is one of the least popular candidates to run for office, so general opposition to the candidate does not explain the aggressive response. Ted Cruz, John Kasich and other right-wing candidates were not known for violent rallies, so policy issues are not a factor. What is going on?
First, we have to look at the nature of Trump’s rhetoric to understand the appeal of his message. A great deal of Trump’s rhetoric is based on in-group/out-group dynamics. The in-group, real Americans, understood as white, hard-working men and the women who support them, are not able to achieve their rightful status of greatness. The reason is because of outside forces, bad/stupid and illegitimate leadership, “those people” abusing the system, external threats from foreign cultures. In other words, real Americans are threatened, and the only reasonable response is to fight back.
To make America great again, “those people” must be put in their place and external forces must be neutralized. Trump’s message is to match fear with anger and hatred. His rhetoric is intentionally violent. External threats will be dealt with through military, even nuclear, action, bombing “the shit out of” our enemies without regard for the consequences. Internal strife can be handled by building a wall to keep “those people,” understood as people of color out, so as not to increase the threat to real Americans. Those remaining will be subject to increased policing, deportation, surveillance, even torture. His is an innately violent and exclusionary message.
So it is without surprise that he drew his support from fearful, angry and hateful people. Among such groups, we have an increased probability of violence, especially when the social organization is not well established and, I believe, when there is an individualist discourse underlying the group dynamic. Self identified and exclusionary in-groups will not brook dissent. So when protesters revealed themselves in the early days of the campaign, some people, albeit a minority of attendees, took it upon themselves to express their fear, anger and hatred through violence. Trump’s leadership furthered the problem as he was largely perceived as condoning the violence of his supporters.
In terms of the Thomas Theorem, protesters, despite being peaceful, are perceived by the audience as a threat, even if that threat is existential or even symbolic. There is no counter-narrative from within the in-group. The probability of violence increases.
Now, however, it seems that Trump supporters are no longer the source or immediate cause of violence. Rather, it appears that protesters are the locus of aggression at Trump rallies. Why is this?
I would wager that there are a number of factors involved, many associated directly to the Thomas Theorem.
- Peaceful protesters may be less likely to attend Trump rallies. This may be for a number of reasons. First, they don’t want to be assaulted. That’s perfectly understandable. Also, there’s no longer much cause for protesters to put their bodies on the line to demonstrate the nature of Trump’s angry message. That point has been made. The audience for such protest messages have completely made up their minds. There’s little to gain from any further, well-organized, peaceful protest.
- The Trump campaign may be more organized and proactive with regard to its attendees. Trump may have encouraged violence and brushed off criticism, but his campaign understood the negative optics. Measures were certainly put into place to minimize violence. Social organization is negatively correlated with internal violence.
- Potential protesters who would rather avoid violence, who are not willing to put their bodies on the line for the sake of messaging, would be less likely to attend Trump protests if they perceive such events as violent.
- This leaves those people who are not dissuaded by violence, or those who may be seeking out an opportunity to express their own fear and anger through violence and aggression to attend Trump protests.
Consequently, the perception that Trump protests are violent events attracts people who seek out such experiences, thus creating the reality that Trump protests are, in fact, violent. This then furthers the attraction of Trump events to more violent attendees.
The formula is simple when you look at the variables of Non-violent Participants (NVP) and Potentially Violent Participants (PVP) assuming that there is a decreased incentive for non-violent participants and increased incentive for violent participants to attend Trump rallies
↓(NVP) + ↑(PVP) = ↑Potential for Violence
We can even extrapolate this out to explain why we are seeing an increased probability for violence on the part of protesters if we distinguish between Trump Supporters (TS) and Trump Protesters (TP), Where the expression defines the probability for violence among one of the groups.
TS(↓PVP + ↑NVP) < TP(↑PVP + ↓NVP)
There is, however, another element that must be explored. We may be seeing a response on the part of Trump protesters to what is reasonably perceived as a significant threat of violence on part of the candidate. Look at Trump’s proposed policies; a wall to keep out Mexicans, separating millions from their families; a colossal police state dedicated to dragging millions of undocumented immigrants from their homes; denying refugees safe harbor; increased bombing and torture; punishing women for seeking reproductive health care…
We are talking about policies that would cause untold suffering for millions of people all over the world, let alone within the United States. In essence, what Trump is proposing is a sharp escalation of state violence under his leadership. Now that Trump is the actual nominee with a not insignificant chance of actually becoming president he constitutes a very real, violent and physical threat to millions of people. This increased probability of threat, as compared to the early days when Trump’s campaign was scoffed as a joke or a publicity stunt, may also create a ripe environment for violence.
It should go without saying that there is no excuse for violence in political discourse. Lashing out on the part of Trump supporters or protesters should never be condoned. That being said, there are sociological explanations for this violence and for the causal shifts in aggression that cannot be ignored. No matter how one analyzes this phenomenon, that Trump’s rhetoric is central to the antagonism and animus on display during this election cycle cannot be denied. Bitter seeds produce bitter fruit.