Sunday, June 5, 2016

Re: Violence Directed at Trump Supporters

Video surfaced this week of anti-Trump protesters throwing eggs at a Trump supporter in California. The video quickly spurred conversations among the left of the ethics and efficacy of such protest.

Perhaps the most common defense of violence directed at Trump and his supporters I have heard is the retort: "if you could go back and kill Hitler, wouldn't you?"

Now that's an interesting question full of all sorts of moral quandaries (and if you're interested in an in depth exploration of the moral implications of such an action I strongly encourage you to read some of the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran Minister who actually tried to kill Hitler), but if we concede the ethics of killing Hitler we must first decide if egging a Trump supporter is killing Hitler.

One, Trump may or may not be Hitler. Certainly his framing of a religious minority as a danger to nationalistic dominance and his insistence that resident foreigners and international regulation are to blame for robbing the nation of it's presumed former glory would would suggest that his is, but whether he is or is not it seems clear that this lone supporter isn't. She's not even Goebbels or Himmler. At worst she's Isherwood's neighbor Fraulein Mayr - slapping on a swastika because it gives her a pride the realities of a changing world does not.

Two, egging won't stop Hitler (or Fraulein Mayr) - it will only convince them that the persecution they imagine they face for being a proud real German is real.

"But," you might protest "perhaps seeing the opposition to the rise of Hitler/Trump in such a dramatic fashion might stop someone else from joining his ranks." Now that's an interesting idea, but it's where the Third Reich analogy falls apart.

Germany in 1932 is not America in 2016 - and the biggest difference is in how our national campaigns work.

In the 1932 German federal elections 84% of registered German voters turned up at the polls (to give you some context the turnout in America for the 1932 presidential election - at the height of the Great Depression mind you - was 52%, and no American presidential election has ever had 84% turnout). That's not an anomaly. The 1930 German federal election had an 82% turnout; The 1928 election had a 76% turnout.

Compare that to the massive "Obama Surge" voter turnout in 2008 at 57%, or the "Tea Party Wave" in 2010 at 38% turnout.

Modern American elections start with the knowledge that there is a massive untapped reservoir of voters who don't vote and then compete to see who can best tap the share of that reservoir that agrees with them.

American federal elections in 2016 are not about convincing people to agree with you. They are about convincing people who agree with you to actually turn-up and vote. This is part of the appeal of Trump to the far right. There is a belief that people who largely agreed with the more milquetoast Johns (Kerry and McCain) but who weren't excited enough to turnout and vote will be motivated by this candidate who speaks the language of fear and American nationalism.

The danger of egging Trump/Hitler, or egging Fraulein Mayr, in 2016 isn't that someone who previously thought Trump/Hitler was an abomination will feel sympathy and now vote for him. It's that someone who previously thought of the Democrats as the lesser of two evils but worth voting for to defeat Trump/Hitler will stay home because they perceive the left as just as bad as the right.  Modern campaigns aren't about changing minds. They're about convincing people it's worth their time to get involved. That's what led the Obama surge in '08 and the Tea Party wave in '10. Not people switching sides, but who stayed home and who showed up.

The moral argument on killing Hitler, or egging Trump supporters, isn't the point. It's not the ethics it's the efficacy. There is too much at stake in the Trump ascendancy to risk center-left voters staying home.