As the nation recoils from Donald Trump’s smirking flirtation with assassination fantasies, the connection between his rhetoric and the well-documented rage and violence present at his rallies has never been more obvious. The rage and violence are themselves obvious. I felt the crowd’s anger and barely restrained physicality myself last weekend, when the Trump Train swung through Green Bay, Wisconsin.
It was my first major Trump rally. I knew it would be different from the vibe generated by the largely professional political class at the Republican National Convention, whose passion for Trump had been manufactured for the occasion. This was Trump in his element, bringing his roadshow to an economically depressed, blue-collar, overwhelmingly white audience that had flocked to him specifically to offer their adoration.
The energy was palpably different. It was less like a political event than a sporting one — and in the Trump framework, the media played the part of the opposing team. I knew from reading about his shtick that he’d be using us as a prop at some point, encouraging the crowd to turn around to the press pen in the back of the room and vent their anger. I knew it was going to happen, but I still wasn’t prepared for a crowd of about 3,000 people (small, by Trump standards) focusing the full force of its rage at me, personally. In that moment, no one is parsing the finer points of “media bias.” In that moment, the crowd becomes a posse, and it has a specific set of criminals in its sights.
This week, the idea of a Trump crowd pursuing vigilantism against journalists became a shade more real, as they modified their anti-Hillary chant — “Lock her up!” — to “Lock them up!” in response to Trump's accusation that “the media is rigged.” At least there is an official list of specific criminal acts they think Clinton guilty of. The idea of imprisoning journalists for writing negative stories can’t even properly be considered “vigilante justice,” because there's no crime being punished — just a grievance.
Ginning up passions is Trump's greatest talent, and the crowd is his weapon. And he has his tiny finger on the trigger.
Now, I can’t say whether Trump would ever fire that weapon on purpose. And I don’t know if the crowd’s cohesion would survive a direct order to commit a specific act. I do have some faith in people’s common decency. But thoughts of violence hang at the edges of the minds of those at Trump rallies, even among those who don’t actually come to blows. There is, of course, the lusty chant of “Lock her up!” the menace of which is less immediate only because its target (unlike the media) isn’t there. But it shadows supporters’ imagination in other ways, too. At least two people I interviewed told me that if Hillary Clinton was elected, they would start carrying a gun. (At the time, I thought I was safe in assuming that they meant they would need it for protection. Now, I regretfully realize I should have asked a follow-up question.) A man I snapped a photo of demanded that I delete it by leaning into my face and yelling, “How would you feel if I followed you into parking lot and took a picture of you, huh? How would you feel if I followed you home?” Mollified by my stuttered apology, he wound up walking away, but a bystander came up to me afterward to ask if I was OK. “I was going to step in if it escalated,” he said. “I wouldn’t want you to get the wrong idea about Trump supporters.” Then he told me he was actually probably going to vote for Gary Johnson.
I happen to know a lot of Trump supporters. They’re my friends, people I volunteer with, members of my family. Of course, of course they’re not all inclined to violence, or even hate. They’re not all racists, and they’re not all conspiracy theorists. But, just as obviously, thugs and paranoiacs have certainly found a home among them. It only takes one frightened bigot who thinks being a “Second Amendment person” is a literal call to action for blood to be spilled.
And look, I get it. At this point, “liberal journalist attends Trump rally and comes away saddened/disgusted/afraid” has become its own canonical form in 2016; I was hesitant to add to the pile, asking myself, is this take hot enough? But then I remembered: Journalism is about more than sounding smart — it’s also about simply bearing witness.
Trump’s coyness about "Second Amendment people" got our — and the Secret Service’s — attention, but his verbal misfires aren’t what makes his rallies and his candidacy so sobering. What frightened me in Green Bay was how willingly the crowd followed Trump right to the edge of acceptable behavior. It’s important not to get used to that.
Trump savagery is the “dog bites man” of politics right now, a story so familiar at this point that it doesn’t always feel like news. But we shouldn’t discount his loathsomeness just because it’s become commonplace; rather, we should see it as the growing menace that it is. In other words, while “Dog Bites Man” doesn’t make for the catchiest headline, “Rabid hound still on the loose” is the kind of thing we keep on the front page, in the spotlight, where Trump and his followers should be. Just because we've seen violence and bigotry before, doesn't mean they should stop being news.