Many Donald Trump supporters didn't need to hear about Thursday night's violent protests outside a Trump rally in San Jose, California, to feel under attack.
They already felt white Americans were losing ground to ethnic minorities in America. They expected nonwhite Americans, Democrats, and liberals to be ruthless in victory. And as far as they were concerned, Trump's opponents had been proving for months that they were really the violent, intolerant ones.
Violence wasn't just what many Trump supporters expected to see. It's something they thought they'd already been seeing.
There is a real distinction between violent and nonviolent protests. Political commentators often put a lot of energy into delineating between the two — nonviolent protest is almost always good; violent protest is always bad; and when a protest turns violent is always clear.
But for both the people attending Donald Trump rallies to praise Trump and those attending to protest him, the distinction is less important. From that perspective, the violence that has erupted at several Trump protests in California is, at most, an escalation of an existing conflict between traditional white Americans and a new order.
Trump supporters think that white people are losing — and think they'll be treated without mercy in defeat
Supporters of Donald Trump know that white Americans are, at some point in the not-too-distant future, projected to become a minority of the US population. (They may overstate how soon that day will come; Americans as a whole think that 33 percent of people in the US are immigrants, for example, when the real proportion is 14 percent.)
Studies have shown that white Americans tend to get more conservative when reminded of their impending minority status. And Trump supporters, in particular, don't welcome that day at all. One poll of Massachusetts voters found that while 45 percent of Republicans said that a majority-minority America was a "bad thing" for America, 60 percent of Trump supporters said as much.
They think the shift in power, from white to nonwhite Americans, is already happening. White Americans are much more likely than black Americans to think that race relations have gotten worse since Obama took office. Half of white Americans (and 64 percent of Republicans) believe that discrimination against whites is as big a problem as discrimination against nonwhites. A majority of Trump's primary supporters — far more than supporters of other GOP candidates — thought that "whites losing out because of preferences for blacks and Hispanics" is a bigger problem than the reverse.
These are attitudes that see race relations as a zero-sum game; these people believe the gains made by nonwhite Americans are coming at the expense of whites. They see demographic shifts not just as a matter of arithmetic, but power — and see a majority-minority America as one where the victors are unlikely to be gracious.
Some racial conservatives see this as simple realpolitik — other ethnic groups are looking out for their interests, and white people need to step up and do the same. (This is the perspective of the alt-right, for example.) Others see it as a consequence of "identity politics" — that by identifying themselves with their ethnic heritage, people are putting their American-ness second.
But they agree that, right now, white people are the losers.
Trump says the things his supporters are afraid to say
The idea that Trump has become popular because he flouts "political correctness" is pretty broadly accepted. When I spoke to Trump supporters in the northern suburbs of Boston earlier this year, this was the one theme I heard over and over again: that people supported him because he said things lots of other people believed, but were afraid to say out loud.
"Afraid," in this context, usually means "afraid someone will get offended." Seventy-nine percent of Trump supporters in South Carolina said that people in the US are afraid to say what they think because someone will take offense; in a Kentucky poll, 83 percent of Republicans agreed most Americans were "afraid to truly say what they think for fear of offending someone" (and that group supported Trump by a 40-point margin).
"They don't want to be branded with a label that you typically get from the left," Alan Kalivas, a Trump supporter from Peabody, Massachusetts, told me in April. "If you think there should be something that border security, that immigration should be under some kind of control, you're suddenly a racist."
But sometimes it means something darker. Sometimes "afraid" actually means "afraid."
"I'm not comfortable putting any kind of sticker on my car," Stu Rosenberg of Peabody told me. "And that was never the case before."
Trump protesters and Trump supporters each see the other as inherently violent
In the days before I spoke to Stu Rosenberg, protesters had disrupted Trump rallies in California. They blocked the street outside one venue, delaying Trump and forcing him to enter on foot. At another rally, protesters threw rocks at police and reportedly punched a Trump supporter.
To me, personally, there is a big difference between those two protests: One of them involves hurting people (or intending to hurt people), and the other does not. Most commentators treat this distinction, in the abstract, as not only morally black-and-white, but obvious.
In practice, people don't always see it as a bright line. That's true of Trump supporters, Trump protesters, and the media itself.
As recently as this spring, the victims of physical violence at Trump rallies were overwhelmingly protesters; the people engaging in physical violence were overwhelmingly Trump supporters.
The protesters themselves were acting in a manner you'd generally call "nonviolent" — they were standing or chanting or holding signs. To Trump supporters, that wasn't the point. Protesters were assertive, and more importantly disruptive; that made their actions unacceptable and justified whatever had to be done to stop them.
"We all want to punch 'em. We want to see Trump. We don't want to hear the hecklers," one woman at Trump's March 12 rally in Cleveland told NPR's Don Gonyea. Another rally attendee told the Huffington Post's Igor Bobic:
"We didn’t ask for them to come. We’re here having a meeting. And they want to come disrupt it? They deserve what they get. They brought that upon themselves when they walked in that door, that hell might break out. And it did. What did they think was going to happen?"
Maybe that's a self-justifying and defensive reaction — the reaction of someone who already feels that she and her ethnic group are under threat, perhaps. (I've gotten more than one reader email justifying violence by claiming protesters were waving Mexican flags.) But media coverage of Trump rallies this spring also tended to treat "disruption" as a quasi-violent act.
When Trump abruptly canceled a rally in Chicago on March 11, he claimed he was doing it for security reasons. Law enforcement said he was full of it, but some of the press went along. Other outlets reported "clashes" between supporters and protesters, implying there had been widespread physical violence (instead of several very tense shouting matches that sometimes involved shoving, which is a more accurate descriptor of what happened).
Many of the Chicago protesters came to see Trump speak with the explicit intention of shouting him down. They were trying to not only disrupt, but shut down, speech. This wasn't treated as nonviolent by Trump supporters, or by many commentators.
And just as Trump supporters see protest as inherently violent, many Trump protesters believe Trump supporters are inherently violent. If Donald Trump is a fascist — something many of them believe — then his supporters are aiding and abetting fascism. If his presidency poses an existential threat to them as human beings — something they also believe — then his supporters' support does too. Their aim is to stop fascism (or at least to disrupt the status quo) by whatever means necessary.
In doing this, they end up doing exactly what Trump supporters expect: They engage in violence and intimidation. But that's something Trump supporters figured was already happening, anyway.