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What role will political violence play in a second Trump administration?

Andrew Moss

donald trump In a wide-ranging interview with a Time reporter this past April, Donald Trump said he expected victory in the coming presidential election, but he wouldn’t rule out the possibility of political violence if victory didn’t materialize.

As he explained, “I don’t think we’re going to have that [political violence]. I think we’re going to win. And if we don’t win, you know, it depends. It always depends on the fairness of the election.”

Mr. Trump’s response raised another question: what role would violence play in a second Trump administration were he to achieve electoral victory this November? His record suggests that the question isn’t hypothetical. During his four years in office, Mr. Trump used violence to achieve various political and policy objectives, and that fact raises critical questions for citizens considering their votes this November.

To commit violence means inflicting harm on other people, harm that is manifested in injury, trauma, or death. But violence is also a form of power, as author and nonviolent activist Rev. James M. Lawson has reminded us.

Rev. Lawson has observed that violence as power is used to “harass, intimidate, injure, shackle, kill, or destroy a person or persons.” It deprives “people . . . of their right to shape their own lives and their access to the things that make life possible.”

In 2017, the Trump administration began a program of separating migrant families to deter asylum seekers from entering the U.S. The government began separating children, many of them infants and toddlers, from their parents, and placing them around the country in more than 100 shelters run by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

By June of 2018, the Department of Homeland Security announced that 2000 children had been separated from their families, but by then journalists were reporting on the conditions in which the children were living: their confinement to cages created by metal fencing, the use of large foil sheets as blankets, overhead lighting that stayed on around the clock, and the recruitment of teenagers to change the diapers of infants whose parents had been taken away.

The public outcry was so great (former First Lady Laura Bush called the policy “cruel” and “immoral”) that President Trump rescinded the policy on June 20. But the separations continued, with estimates reaching as many as 5000 separated children, and with many families remaining separated today, due to the unknown whereabouts of parents or children.

medical study commissioned by the organization Physicians for Human Rights found that psychological trauma persisted even years after reunification; both children and parents showed symptoms indicating post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety.

In deploying violence as a means to achieve policy objectives, Mr. Trump understands the importance of language. In targeting asylum seekers, he has frequently used dehumanizing language to characterize migrants as criminals and their presence at the border as an “invasion.”

Mr. Trump also understood the importance of language in seeking to deny and reverse the legitimate results of the 2020 election. He knew the language needed to draw his followers to Washington on January 6, 2021, tweeting on December 19, 2020: “Big protest in D.C. on Jan. 6. Be there, will be wild!”

He knew, as he spoke before a massed crowd at the capitol that day, the words needed to galvanize his followers into action: “We must stop the steal and then we must ensure that such election fraud never happens again, can never be allowed to happen again.”

And he had his reasons for waiting 187 minutes, despite the pleas of government officials and law enforcement, to use the language needed to call on the rioters to disperse.

That day, rioters criminally assaulted 140 Capitol and Metropolitan officers, and five people died as a result of the violence. That day also carries the distinction of being the largest attempt at voter suppression (81,283,098 voters) in U.S. history.

In the weeks and months following the insurrection, Mr. Trump has also understood the importance of narrative, re-narrating the events of January 6 as a fight for election integrity and characterizing imprisoned rioters as “hostages” and “patriots.”

Thus, Mr. Trump’s deployment of violence is not a matter of, “it depends.” He has made clear, through word and deed, that he sees violence as an appropriate instrument for achieving objectives, whatever the costs to life and to democratic institutions may be.

In his analysis of violence as a form of political power, Rev. James M. Lawson has noted that nonviolence is a form of power too. Indeed, it is a “force more powerful” that seeks “to resolve conflicts, injuries, and issues in order to heal and uplift, to solidify community, and to help people take power into their own hands and use that power creatively.”

In his important book, Revolutionary Nonviolence: Organizing for Freedom, Rev. Lawson points out that three major movements advancing human rights in the 20th Century (women’s suffrage, the labor movement, and the struggle for racial equality) have been essentially nonviolent. That is a long view, and it would be wise today to take such a view in looking ahead to one’s decisions as a voter this November. Whatever choices one may eventually make, those choices ought to begin – at the very least – with a critical analysis of the facts and a deep accounting of one’s personal responsibilities to the present moment and to future life.

Andrew Moss, syndicated by PeaceVoice, writes on labor, nonviolence, and culture from Los Angeles. He is an emeritus professor (Nonviolence Studies, English) from the California State University.