Donald Trump and the ever present specter of political violence

The former President earned the ire of both progressives and moderate conservatives for stating the obvious that his indictment on seven-year old charges would cause “potential death & destruction,” but pointing out the truth should never be out of bounds, nor has it ever been in our history.

Last week, former President Donald Trump earned the ire of both progressives and establishment conservatives for noting, correctly, that his indictment on specious charges would likely result in violence.  The former President posted on Truth Social in reference to Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg and his plan to magically transmute a misdemeanor from seven years ago into a felony, “What kind of person can charge another person, in this case, a former President of the United States, who got more votes than any sitting President in history, and leading candidate (by far!) for the Republican Party nomination, with a Crime, when it is known by all that NO Crime has been committed, & also known that potential death & destruction in such a false charge could be catastrophic for our Country?”  Critics immediately cried foul, claiming President Trump was intentionally inciting violence with this simple and obvious, and obviously true message.  Karen Townsend, writing for, provides an illustrative example from establishment conservatives, when she told the former President “This unhinged behavior has to stop.”  In her view, Trump has “veer[ed] off into the dark side. Claiming horrific results as they have to do with his supporters, as he implies, is beyond the pale. A former president has to rise above inciting violence and destruction. Don’t tell me this isn’t a deliberate attempt to start trouble because that is exactly what this is. Trump is trying to get his loyal base all riled up and ready to cause mayhem.”  District Attorney Bragg is not mentioned in more than passing for another several paragraphs, and yet here she finally gets to the heart of the controversy.  “All of this is not to say that what D.A. Bragg is doing is right. Everyone, including Bragg, knows it is not the right thing to prosecute Trump for paying off a porn star with whom he (allegedly) cheated on Melania. Bragg knew this misdemeanor shouldn’t be elevated and prosecuted but then he caved to pressure from Trump-deranged people. He put his political career ahead of the practice of law. No other former president has ever been indicted or arrested, much less prosecuted for anything, and certainly not a misdemeanor. The D.A.’s office wants to be known as the office that brought down Trump.”

The obvious question:  If Ms. Townsend truly believes this, then why is most of her fire turned on the former President who she openly admits is being unjustly persecuted?  Putting this another way, Alvin Bragg is the District Attorney.  He is the one considering an unprecedented indictment of an extraordinarily popular political figure, one with millions of devoted supporters.  He is well aware that proceeding with this indictment will surely anger many among this group and some in their anger might resort to violence.  It’s his job to weigh whether the prosecution of a former President on these or other charges is worth the potential backlash.  This is not to justify violence of any kind.  Anyone engaging in this or other acts of political violence should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, but human nature being what it is, and what it has been for thousands of years, pretending that there will be no backlash is nonsensical.  DA Bragg is the one with his finger on the trigger and as a supposedly responsible civil servant, he can choose whether to fire or not.  He should be under no delusions that there will not be consequences for any action he may take, nor is President Trump under any obligation to blithely assure him all will be well.  Indeed, one can argue the opposite:  The former President clearly laying out the stakes in the situation in plain language is not “unhinged,” it’s a welcome dose of reality, one a former occupant of the Oval Office and all high ranking officials have a duty to discuss openly.  Contrary to Ms. Townsend’s belief this is something new, Presidents of the past have said similar things when the stakes were high and the potential for backlash was real.  Theodore Roosevelt is on Mount Rushmore and, while in office was considered the most popular President in United States history.  Violence, however, largely between progressive supporters of the labor movement and supporters of the old-guard laissez faire system along with much racial strife, was far more common than it is today.  Early in his Presidency, a mass coal strike in Pennsylvania resulted in 147,000 anthracite miners, members of the United Mine Workers, leaving their jobs on May 12, 1902.  At the time, miners worked 10 hours a day, 6 days per week for little pay and major health problems.  Grumblings about a potential strike and demands for better treatment had been ongoing for years, but were tamped down by a Republican establishment in bed with big business before Roosevelt came into office.

Twelve weeks after the miners stopped working, the operator, George F. Baer attempted to break the strike with non-union labor, claiming “The coal presidents are going to settle this strike, and they will settle it their own way.”  The next day, a sheriff’s deputy was seen escorting two strangers in Shenandoah, one of whom was carrying a bundle of supplies.  When the three were accosted by a group of strikers and the bundle was revealed to contain clothing for miners, the stranger was beaten unconscious and the deputy fled into a nearby train depot, where 5,000 additional miners laid siege.  A person trying to lend the deputy aid was clubbed to death before another group of policemen managed to get him on a train waiting at the back of the dept.  As they left the station, a battle ensued with 1,000 bullets fired on both sides.  No one knows precisely how many died, but the sheriff wired the governor later in the day, saying “Bloodshed ran riot in this country Property destroyed Citizens killed and injured Situation beyond my control Troops should be sent immediately.” The governor, William Stone, quickly responded, but it took two full weeks to quell the violence.  Roosevelt looked on, unsure how to proceed at first.  To a large extent, his sympathy lied with the miners working under brutal conditions and not asking for much beyond an eight hour day and a 10% raise.  He was innately skeptical of the increasingly large “combinations” of businesses that controlled every aspect of life at the time.  In this case, the same people who controlled the mine, also controlled the railroads.  Men like Baer, who said things like “The rights and interests of the laboring man will be protected and cared for – not by labor agitators, but by the Christian men and women whom God in his infinite wisdom has given the control of the property interests of the country, and upon the successful Management of which so much depends,” disturbed the President.  Roosevelt, however, also had to accept that no President had ever truly interceded in a labor dispute except Grover Cleveland, who put down a strike that had turned violent despite sympathy for the strikers, killing about 30 of them, meaning his power was limited.  There was also the reality that the Pennsylvania anthracite mines provided heating fuel for the entire Northeast and if the strike was not resolved by winter, people would freeze to death.

He considered every possibility, even taking over the mines directly, but eventually settled on trying to serve as mediator between the disputing parties.  Roosevelt was ultimately able to reach a settlement and avert disaster, thanks to the skillful negotiation that was a hallmark of his political career, but the fault lines that divided labor from capital persisted throughout the remainder of his Presidency and he was plagued with a fear that another civil war would result if a better balance wasn’t struck.  He did not have this fear because he didn’t believe that there were good people on both sides of the debate.  Rather, he felt that the rise of big business had shifted the center, putting the working man at an unfair disadvantage not seen before in the country’s history, and there was no resulting equilibrium.  If this equilibrium could not be found, violence would be the necessary result.  By the end of his time in office, Roosevelt had grown more progressive and began to identify big business as the villain given their ability to effectively purchase politicians and pay to enact laws beneficial to them.  On January 31, 1908, he delivered one of the most incendiary and scathing letters to Congress before or since.  “Ultra conservatives who object to cutting out the abuses will do well to remember that if the popular feeling does become strong, many of those upon whom they rely to defend them will be the first to turn against them.”  He continued to say that he was on a “campaign against privilege” and his targets were Wall Street speculators “making large sales of what men do not possess,” journalists who “act as the representatives of predatory wealth,” and “men of wealth, who find in the purchase politician the most efficient instrument of corruption.”  Roosevelt followed this up with an even more incendiary broadside against the ultra-wealthy, labeling them “the most dangerous members of the criminal class – the criminals of great wealth.”  Reactions to this message varied widely.  Some thought it deranged and that the President must be on drugs.  Others claimed it was necessary and sober, even conservative.  None, however, claimed the President was inciting violence for either pointing out that labor would “turn against” them or identifying the enemy of labor.  Whatever side you were on, these were the realities of the situation.

In our own era, Democrats have repeatedly used the potential for violence as an implied threat to enact and support their policies.  Senate Majority Chuck Schumer famously, or infamously if you prefer, stood on the steps of the Supreme Court and personally singled out two Justices for potential retribution should they vote the wrong way.  “I want to tell you, Gorsuch, I want to tell you, Kavanaugh, you have released the whirlwind and you will pay the price,” he said.  “You won’t know what hit you if you go forward with these awful decisions.”  Former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi asked in 2018 why there weren’t “uprisings” across the entire country against Donald Trump’s policies when he was President.  “I just don’t even know why there aren’t uprisings all over the country, and maybe there will be when people realize that this is a policy that they defend,” she said, referring to stricter border controls during the Trump Administration. “It’s a horrible thing, and I don’t see any prospect for legislation here,” she added, essentially washing her hands of the issue and inviting her supporters to run wild.   One need not even mention the violence that was unleashed in the summer of 2020 with the full support of the Democrat Party, including their Vice Presidential candidate raising money to bail out the rioters and leading Democrats such as Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez claiming protests need to be “uncomfortable.” Last year, President Joe Biden referred to his opposition as the “most extreme” in the country’s history, suggesting they were more dangerous than slaveholders before adding a qualifier.  “This MAGA crowd is really the most extreme political organization that’s existed in American history, in recent American history,” he said to reporters at the White House.  Progressive supporters were left to interpret what should be done by those as extreme as Confederates at best, whom we want to war with, or segregationists at worst, who did not relent without significant violence.  In these and other cases, the underlying message was all too clear and the resulting threat more than impleed:  If you move too far in the direction we consider abhorrent, there will be consequences, or as the mafia used to say, “Nice shop you have hear, it would be a shame if something were to happen to it.”

My point here is not to debate who is better or worse or to play the game of whataboutism, but rather to state the reality that the underlying threat of violence has been persistent, and is indeed at times even healthy.  Those in a position of power need an opposing force to make them understand they serve the interests of all people, not simply their own supporters, and their decisions are likely to arouse passions on one side or another.  These passions should not be readily unleashed, but their existence serves a powerful deterring effect to moderate overreach and abuse of power.  Civilizations exist in a precarious balance of order and savagery; a compact between citizens that is all too easily broken, and the knowledge that is the case helps ensure the custodians of this compact take great care to keep it.  This should not serve to excuse violence by any means.  Throughout history, leaders from Grover Cleveland to Teddy Roosevelt, both mentioned here, have had to exercise state power to quell violence and prosecute those they sympathized with in principle when they committed violence.  These passions unleashed need to be restrained and order needs to be maintained.  If any Trump supporters engage in violence, they should be held accountable.  At the same time, the Manhattan District Attorney does not serve in a vacuum.  He has a duty and obligation to both follow the law and ensure his decisions serve the public good.  Prosecuting a sitting President for a seven year old misdemeanor does neither, and can only be seen as intentionally provocative, quite literally poking the bear for no reason as even Ms. Townsend admits he is putting politics above the law.  The consequences of such a decision fall on him and him alone, pointing this out is not “unhinged” by any means.  It’s the way these things are supposed to work, and always have.


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