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Someone Will Die

AP Photo / Nati Harnik

This evening at an event in Kansas City there were numerous protest interruptions inside the rally and a chaotic scene outside in which, according to a report on MSNBC, police used pepper spray on at least one group of protestors.

For all the talk about Mussolini, let alone Hitler, George Wallace is the best analog in the last century of American politics - the mix of class politics and racist incitement, the same sort of orchestrated ratcheting up of conflict between supporters and protestors. As all of this has unfolded over the course of the day there have been numerous instances of Trump supporters calling for protestors to "go back to Africa" and another on video calling on them to "go to fucking Auschwitz."

Is the man invoking Nazi concentration camps in that video an anti-Semite or just a ramped hater in a frenzy of provocation? I'm not sure we know. And as I'll argue in a moment, in a climate of incitement and crowd action, it doesn't necessarily matter.

It may sound like hyperbole. But this is the kind of climate of agitation and violence where someone will end up getting severely injured or killed. I do not say that lightly.

I want to go back to something that happened earlier this month. At a Trump rally in Louisville on March 1st, a number of African-American protestors were ejected from the event. As they were being led out, they were heckled, pushed and shoved. One of the men doing the shoving was 75 year old Alvin Bamberger, a veteran and member of a local Korean War veterans association. Bamberger was videoed yelling at and repeatedly shoving a female, African-American protestor and the video went viral.

A few days later he sent a letter of apology to the head of his local veterans organization.

Here's part of the text ...

At first, he wrote, "everything seemed to be under control and mostly orderly. All that changed when Trump got to the stage. Protestors in the crowd became vocal and began pushing and shoving their way toward the stage. At one point I was physically knocked down and fell to the ground, losing my jacket (which was eventually returned to me). The protestors were holding up signs, chanting ‘black lives matter' and pushing and shoving Trump supporters.

"Trump kept saying ‘get them out, get them out' and people in the crowd began pushing and shoving the protestors," Bamberger said. "Unfortunately a lot of this behavior was happening right next to where I was standing and having been pushed to the floor myself, my emotions got the best of me, and I was caught up in the frenzy. I physically pushed a young woman down the aisle toward the exit, an action I sincerely regret."

Bamberger said he learned only afterwards that some of the Trump supporters "standing right next to me" were members of a white supremacist group.

"Unfortunately my state of mind after being knocked down and hurt myself, and being caught between a group of white supremacists and Black Lives Matter protestors contributed to my behavior however, there is no excuse for my actions," he wrote.

I've seen various responses to this apology, some seeing it as insufficient and insincere, others seeing it as genuine and contrite. Some say he shifts the blame. If nothing else, this is no mere 'I'm sorry if anyone took offense' type nonsense non-apology. It is abject and unflinching. But set all that aside. That's not what concerns me here. Bamberger's overarching explanation rings very true to me. Indeed, it is backed up by decades of social science: People act very differently in crowd or mob situations than they do on their own. There are various theories as to just why this is the case - again, there's a whole social science and group psychology literature about it. But crowd/mob situations are profoundly disinhibiting events. People sometimes do things they themselves not only regret but almost literally can't believe they did.

None of this is meant to absolve people of responsibility for their actions. Having watched the video I have little doubt Bamberger came into the event with a lot of pretty intense feelings and beliefs that set him up for this confrontation. But would he have acted this way without all the outside stimulus he describes in his letter? Probably not. We all have angers and prejudices and hostilities which our socialization keeps in check, sometimes even hidden from ourselves. Some of us, of course, have much more than others. But in crowd settings, with what can now only be called Trump's almost nonstop incitement to eject or beat "thug" protestors, jostling and shoving, ramped up emotions, things can escalate very rapidly. And let's be honest, it can happen on both sides. A hypothetical: a Trump supporter shoves a black protestor, the protestor punches back, others join in. We don't need to equate the two sides, which I do not, to see that there is a lot of anger and animus on each side. This kind of atmosphere can unleash it.

What we have seen over the last two weeks isn't just an escalation of chaos and low level violence but a progressive normalization of unacceptable behavior - more racist verbal attacks, more violence. This is in turn clearly attracting more people who want trouble - on both sides. If you're an angry racist who wants to act out on his anger, can you imagine any better place to go than a Trump rally? If you hate Trump, his supporters and all he stands for and want to get physical about it, where best to go?

Again, this is not meant to equate the two sides. As I mentioned yesterday, Trump has repeatedly claimed that instances of crowd violence at his rallies occurred when protestors - "bad dudes" - attacked his supporters and his supporters fought back. Until the events last night in Chicago, there is no evidence that anything like this ever happened. Not once. It is all lies. It's still not clear exactly what happened last night in Chicago. I have seen numerous reports from the event that show that the great majority of protestors were peaceful, in many cases there as families, from various political and community organizations. But clearly there were scuffles and disorderly behavior inside that both sides participated in - who started what, I have no idea. It was a qualitative advance, or descent, from what had come before it.

But let's go back to the incident with Dimassimo, who appears to be a left wing activist affiliated with Black Lives Matter and similar groups. This is not only totally unacceptable behavior, it is also totally unhinged behavior. When you try to rush the stage when a presidential candidate with Secret Service protection is speaking, you are literally taking your life in your hands. This is the kind of crazy thinking, which even if Dimassimo didn't intend to hurt Trump, leads to very bad outcomes. And this is from the anti-Trump side!

The climate Trump is creating at his events is one that not only disinhibits people who normally act within acceptable societal norms. He is drawing in, like moths to a flame, those who most want to act out on their animosities, drives and beliefs. It is the kind of climate where someone will eventually get killed.