MOSS COLUMN: Donald Trump and the Uses of Violence

Published 9:00 am Friday, June 28, 2024

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By: Andrew Moss, writer for PeaceVoice, Emeritus Professor (Nonviolence Studies, English) at California State University.

In a wide-ranging interview with a Time Magazine 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.

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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.

A 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

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.