When I first heard that a flood of protesters had shut down a Donald Trump rally in Chicago, like most decent people I could barely contain a cheer. While it's an unfortunate fact that any push-back against the unearthly colored rotting tangerine will only amplify his message and draw more fanatical yokels to him, forcing him to shut the fuck up, even for a few minutes, feels like an unequivocal moral victory. It was genuinely shocking to see the footage of the Chicago brawl between Trump supporters, protesters and police -- to witness what politics has come to in America in the year 2016 -- but it still somehow wasn't completely surprising given the tone of Trump's rhetoric over the past several months. It was always only a matter of time before one of his rallies descended into violent chaos.
According to a detailed story now posted at Politico, the idea for the protest was hatched on the campus of the University of Illinois in Chicago a week or so before Trump's appearance. It was well-organized and kept mostly a secret, which is why so many protesters managed to get inside the event before the whole thing was called off and violence descended. But here's the thing: According to one organizer, the protest was conceived as a non-partisan affair, but given its campus roots, many of those taking part in it weren't simply anti-Trump -- they were pro-Bernie Sanders. So optics-wise what you had was a bunch of Sanders supporters shutting down a Trump rally and turning it into an impromptu rally for Sanders. Likely without meaning to, some of these protesters highlighted the extremist bent of this election cycle and brought Bernie Sanders level with Donald Trump in terms of a conversation about political outsiders and their rabid fan base.
This isn't to actually compare Sanders to Trump. Bernie Sanders has served honorably in Congress for years and his policy ideas don't involve irrevocably harming people in the name of fueling his own titanium ego, as Trump's do. But his supporters are more like True Believers and they proselytize for him with an intensity not often seen in politics. Like Trump, Sanders inspires rapt attention via what often feels like a cult of personality. It's not just his policies his mostly young fans love, it's his unkempt hair and wire-rimmed eyeglasses and everything that to them screams authenticity. In other words, he holds the same kind of sway over his supporters as Trump does over his, only from the left rather than the right. A battle in the streets between Trump and Sanders people is a reminder of how utterly screwed up and radicalized our politics are this election season. On one side there's Trump, a narcissistic P.T. Barnum feeding off white resentment and stirring up racist and xenophobic hostility among his minions -- and on the other side there's Sanders, whose True Believers will swat down any and all who dare besmirch the name of the Chosen One or express support for his Democratic rival, whom they refer to as a witch.
Now certainly, Bernie Sanders isn't a budding fascist demagogue and a genuine threat to our country and its democracy. But by shouting his name during their push to shut down Trump's rally last week, Sanders's young supporters made it seem like his campaign is simply the left-wing answer to Trump's. No doubt that's why the protest's organizers initially wanted to keep their action independent and not attached to any one particular Trump challenger: because the message needed to be that Trump was a genuine threat to our nation and its people rather than, "Trump's dangerous, here's the alternative! Feel the Bern!" In fact, by making it seem as if Trump's detractors were all agents of Bernie Sanders, Sanders's supporters gave Trump an easy out and the perfect target to deflect criticism onto in the wake of the brawl. He's already blamed "communist" Bernie for wrecking his rally and quashing his First Amendment rights. (One more time for the cheap seats: the First Amendment doesn't protect you from protesters exercising their First Amendment rights.) Trump never should've had a specific villain he could sic his idiot rabble on because the people who stopped his rally should've been, you know, the people.
Looking at the campaigns this season, it's difficult to process the extreme nature of so much of the rhetoric and policy presentation. We have a candidate who encourages violence at his rallies and who, almost certainly, will eventually get somebody seriously hurt or killed. On the other side is a good man but one who preaches revolution and whose supporters, some of them, are willing to let the country burn in the hands of that would-be dictator should their guy not get the nomination. Last Friday night, rabid acolytes for both made a big show of clashing on national television in a display not seen since the 60s. It would be easy to say that everybody needs to take a step back and take a deep breath, but that would of course be useless. Nobody's breathing right now. Everyone's simply reacting. Reacting out of fear and passion and some kind of virulent insanity that's gripped this country. Who knows what's going to finally bring us back to our senses?