A lithograph depicting the anti-Catholic riots that hit Philadelphia in 1844. In the mid 19th century, xenophobic political parties and mobs often targeted Catholic immigrants from Ireland and Italy. Image via public domain
One day not too long ago, more than 10,000 people packed themselves into a Detroit convention center to hear the most controversial politician in America speak. Some were there to shout him down, more were there to celebrate him, and the two factions boiled over with anger and joy before he even took the stage. A scuffle broke out, a cop was seen screaming about having been blinded by some kind of chemical spray, and mocking chants of "Sieg Heil!" could be heard. Eventually, the speaker had to cut his remarks short, his speech subsumed by the chaos he was by then in the habit of causing.
Earlier that day, in Oklahoma, the same candidate had inveighed against the protesters who followed him around the country. "We're going to grab some of these college students by the hair of your head and stick you under the jail."
Those could be vignettes from Donald Trump's campaign as it rolls, seemingly unstoppably now, toward the Republican nomination. The GOP frontrunner's Chicago rally on Friday was canceled amid mass protests, then turned into a brawl; an earlier event in St. Louis led to dozens of arrests of anti-Trump activists. But those scenes of unrest in Detroit and Oklahoma come from George Wallace rallies held in October 1968, where the avowed champion of racial segregation was stoking the same sorts of flames Trump is playing with today. Trump, like Wallace, speaks to the fears and anxieties of working-class whites, the sense that their world is slipping away.
Also like Wallace, Trump makes vague—and sometimes not so vague—threats of violence against those who oppose him. On Wednesday morning, after yet another night of primary victories, Trump was asked what would happen if the Republican elite made good on plans to stop him from getting the nomination at the party convention by any means necessary. "I think you'd have riots," he replied. "I'm representing many, many millions of people."
But Wallace and Trump aren't aberrations. There is a long American tradition of violence in the service of politics—and especially violence sparked by racial and ethnic tension.
"The worst political violence in US history has often been racialized," explains Christopher Strain, a professor of American studies at Florida Atlantic University and the author of Reload: Rethinking Violence in American Life. "And there are shades of this strain of violence at the recent Trump rally in Chicago."
In the early days of the American republic, settling partisan disputes by way of fists, knives, clubs, or guns was relatively common. Prominent politicians—like Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton, and, a few decades later, Andrew Jackson—were almost as notorious for their pistol duels as their politics. Then there was the infamous May 1856 incident where South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks strode onto the floor of the Senate and beat abolitionist Republican Charles Sumner furiously about the neck and face with a cane, nearly killing him.
Violence used to be a more common feature of American life, and campaign events reflected that, according to Noah Feldman, a Harvard legal historian. "They were definitely extremely raucous and that was true of a whole range of public events," he says. "Not just campaign rallies, but the elections themselves were raucous and unruly. All of politics was just much, much wilder."
The mid 19th century saw a spike in populist violence. In the 1840s and 50s, as anti-immigrant sentiment rose, riots tore through cities such as Philadelphia, Louisville, St. Louis, New Orleans, and Baltimore; members of the xenophobic Know-Nothing Party launched attacks on Catholics in Maine; and Chicago's Know-Nothing mayor essentially went to war with the city's German and Irish immigrants. The Civil War only further inflamed racial tensions. In New York City at the time, Feldman says, "whites—mostly Irish-Americans—rioted and killed blacks on the theory that, you know, 'We're going to have to go to war over you, so let's kill you.' I mean, it's pretty crazy stuff and profoundly irrational but also a feature of American public life at the time."
But it was during the Reconstruction era that followed the Civil War that wholesale racial terrorism began to take hold on a mass scale. After a bitterly contested Louisiana gubernatorial election, as many as 100 black state militiamen holding a local courthouse in the town of Colfax were killed by a band of enraged paramilitary troops called the White League on Easter Sunday 1873. (Three whites were ultimately convicted of federal crimes over the incident but won a reprieve when the Supreme Court ruled state courts would have to deal with the massacre perpetrators.)
"To become civil is hard; to become uncivil is easy."
Donald Trump's 2016 presidential bid, of course, has been defined by the sort of flagrant appeals to anti-immigrant sentiment with which the Know-Nothings would have been quite familiar. In the worldview he's expressed over and over again in stump speeches and on the campaign trail, brown people (Mexicans and Muslims) are responsible for the problems facing working-class whites. Trump has also repeatedly and explicitly (if somewhat flippantly) encouraged attacks on protesters. Combine that rhetoric with angry opposition from left-wing groups such as Black Lives Matter, and you've got the makings of the type of storm not seen in America since the days of Wallace.
"Maintaining civility in public discourse is a delicate thing," says Feldman. "I don't fear that we're in danger of becoming Weimar Germany, with a battle for control over the streets. But that said, civility is a hard-won practice. To become civil is hard; to become uncivil is easy."
A case in point is that of 78-year-old John McGraw. He's the white Trump supporter who sucker-punched a black protester being led out of an event in Fayetteville, North Carolina, by security personnel early last week. (Trump has suggested he may pay legal fees for McGraw, who was arrested the next day and charged with assault and disorderly conduct. Local law enforcement reportedly mulled incitement charges against the candidate himself but declined to proceed.)
Where Trump differs from his predecessors is he has a not insignificant chance of actually becoming president. In 1968, Wallace was a third-party candidate with mostly regional appeal; in the 1850s, the Know-Nothings never got a sniff of the White House and faded quickly. Trump, the presumptive GOP nominee, might be an underdog against Hillary Clinton in the general election, but he's got a shot, and that scares the hell out of people who oppose him.
"His tactics are on a continuum with we've seen some presidents and candidates do before, but they seem much more extreme because they're not even rationalized as safety measures," says Tabatha Abu El-Haj, a law professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia. "It's sort of a disregard of the protesters' rights. And right now, he's a private citizen—he's not yet the government acting, so he doesn't need to respect those rights. But it does make me wonder what his administration, if that occurred, would do when they were obligated to respect the First Amendment rights of protesters."
Trump's rhetoric has spooked plenty of people, both on the left and the right, but America has seen this sort of anger before and come out on the other side intact. What it hasn't seen is what happens when that sort of demagogue actually gets handed the keys to the country.
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