After weeks of violence around the world, law enforcement officials in Cleveland are bracing for a week of potential chaos. The FBI reportedly visited some activists’ homes to get them to stay out of Cleveland. The Cleveland police department has prepared for the worst, readying the kind of riot gear and tactical weaponry seen in places like Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore over the past couple years. But the source of caution isn’t a typical threat — it’s a massive political rally, perhaps the biggest of the year, for Donald Trump.
Over the next week, thousands of people will descend upon Cleveland for the Republican National Convention. Normally, the convention is all about presidential candidates celebrating their nomination, and spotlighting their message for the general election in November.
For Trump, his convention is inspiring serious worries of violence. We’ve seen some of this in past Trump rallies, as one side (either protesters or supporters) starts a skirmish, and it escalates into violent chaos from there. Given that the convention will likely have far more people in attendance — and out protesting — than the typical Trump rally, there’s serious concern that it will be much worse than what we’ve seen so far.
At the root of these protests is the extraordinary passion Trump has inspired — not just among his supporters, but also for his opposition. After all, every candidate faces some level of opposition or protest, but Trump is clearly inspiring something unique.
So why are Trump’s opponents so passionate? In short, Trump is explicit in his bigotry in a way that people find extremely dangerous. That’s not solely because a President Trump would rule in a racist, xenophobic, or misogynistic way, but also because his campaign’s success represents a dissolution of American norms that reject outright bigotry — a shift that could have implications far beyond 2016.
Donald Trump is not an ordinary candidate — and he’s inspired an extraordinary opposition
Rebecca Pletewski, a leading member of Ohio-based Stand Together Against Trump, which will protest this week, had a long list ready of Trump’s worst hits:
He came out of the gate calling for a complete shutdown of Muslims coming into the country and for surveillance of mosques. He’s implied that Mexicans coming into this country are all rapists and murderers, and that a federal judge would be incapable of doing his job because of his Mexican heritage. He’s attacked any critic or opponent with violence and bullying, especially if you’re female. He’d rather call you a fat dog, a pig, a basket-case — just no respect for any [woman] unless they’re pretty and pageant-worthy. The list goes on and on.
Time and time again, this was the consistent theme for why protesters and activists told me they’re terrified by Trump’s rise: It’s not just that they disagree with his policies — although they do — but that they find his rhetoric and attitude bigoted in a way that’s particularly negative and, crucially, very influential.
Jerry Pena, who helps lead the aptly named Ohioans Against Hate, said Trump’s words aren’t just insulting to many voters. Worse, Trump has challenged long-standing norms against racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry in America.
"Trump is a candidate that’s giving people permission to be racist and to be outward with their racism," Pena said. "Before Trump came onto the scene as a candidate, we know that racial tensions have been going on in this country forever. But he’s a weird candidate where he’s not afraid to talk about it and just say what he feels. And I feel like that gives people permission to think, ‘Oh, you know what? I was thinking the same thing.’"
Take, for instance, Trump’s proposal to ban all Muslims from coming to the US. This kind of idea was simply unthinkable just a few years ago. Former President George W. Bush, for one, repeatedly emphasized that the war on terror is not a war on Islam, and President Barack Obama has continued that message. Trump’s biggest idea for the war on terror does away with all of that, embracing an explicitly anti-Muslim approach.
By shattering that norm, Trump let other politicians embrace explicitly anti-Muslim ideas, forced pollsters to ask about banning Muslims, and seemingly inspired some political figures to take the idea even further — like when Newt Gingrich said this month that people "of a Muslim background" should be deported if they believe in Sharia. The rejection of an entire religious group is now normalized in a segment of American politics, in large part thanks to Trump.
This gets to what anti-Trump activism is really about: For many of them, the issue isn’t that they want others to vote for Hillary Clinton. Pletewski and Pena, for example, said that if people hear their message and vote for Libertarian Gary Johnson, that’s fine.
The most important message from anti-Trump protesters isn’t necessarily that Clinton is a better candidate, although many do believe she is. Their plan is to show the world, through protests and eventually voting, that the style of campaign Trump is running has no place in American politics, regardless of political party. Protests are an attempt to repair anti-bigotry norms that Trump has dismantled throughout his campaign.
After all, even if Trump loses in 2016, there’s a possibility that another candidate in his style or with his bigoted ideas could take his role in the next election. But if protesters and voters thoroughly reject his campaign, and make it clear explicit bigotry is still not welcome in the US, another Trump-like figure may be much less likely.
Still, activists obviously know that the result of the 2016 election matters. So activists in Ohio and elsewhere hope to fuel anti-Trump opposition as the convention gets a lot of public attention to maximize voter turnout against Trump. To achieve this, activists won’t just march and protest throughout the week; Ohioans Against Hate, for one, will focus on canvassing around eight cities in the state to get voters to pledge that they’ll vote against Trump.
Support and fears surrounding Trump have led to violence before. Will they again?
Still, that Trump has said some terrible things does not justify violence — America’s strong norms against violence have long shielded it from the kind of chaos that plagues some other democracies, and ultimately people can voice opinions about Trump in the voting booth without any violence. But Trump’s bigotry against large groups of voters and rhetoric about "taking the country back" have inspired very passionate supporters and opponents — and sometimes that passion can get out of control.
The activists I spoke to repeatedly insisted that they do not want any violence at the convention. Pletewski of Stand Together Against Trump pointed to her group’s website, which has some resources and advice for peaceful protest and de-escalation. The group will also host training sessions every morning throughout the week of the convention on how to protest peacefully and avoid violent escalations.
But violence is still a concern, as the FBI and other law enforcement officials’ actions over the past few weeks indicate — from asking activists to stay out of Cleveland to gearing up for riots.
To some extent, this is a result of highly polarized views over a very sensitive issue. On one side, you have the protesters who view Trump as a dangerous bigot. On the other, you have people who strongly believe that Trump is their chance to "take back" their country — from immigrants, minorities, and so on. They’re two groups at the extremes of perhaps the most emotionally fraught issue in the US — race — so tensions are very high.
But some of the violence is surely attributable to Trump himself. Time and time again, Trump has suggested that he’s okay with people at his rallies acting violently against protesters with comments like, "If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them, would you? Seriously. Okay? Just knock the hell … I promise you I will pay for the legal fees. I promise." This is just another way Trump has broken US norms — in this case, against political violence.
One concern for protesters: Violence could play right into Trump’s hands. Violence is the exact kind of chaos that a President Trump, with his authoritarian streak, has said he’ll protect America from. So if violence does break out, Trump will simply be able to point to the mayhem as proof that the US needs a strongman willing to do anything — even shatter political and cultural norms — to protect the country.
So violence is a very real risk for protesters. But what are the alternatives? They feel the need to protest to show their discontent with where Trump is taking US politics. They can’t sit on their hands just because a few people among them or some people on the other side might take it too far.
At this point, it’s impossible to say what will happen. Maybe the convention will turn into total chaos. Maybe it will be surprisingly peaceful. Maybe it will land somewhere in-between.
"With any situation where people are passionate, there’s risk for people to get out of control," Pletewski said. "But our focus is to be able to have our voice heard, to protest peacefully, and to make America realize and see that Trump’s values are not American values."