Donald Trump is using campus protests to stoke right-wing violence for the election

Disinformation about leftist "violence" is used by MAGA to justify their own, very real crimes

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published May 3, 2024 6:00AM (EDT)

Donald Trump | Pro-Israeli and Pro-Palestinian protesters at UCLA. (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump | Pro-Israeli and Pro-Palestinian protesters at UCLA. (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Despite all the hysteria in the punditry about campus protests against the war in Gaza, by and large, the student activists have been peaceful. Even at Columbia University, where an ill-advised police crackdown caused an inevitably angry reaction from protesters that led to a building occupation, this has been true. As former Washington Post journalist Paul Waldman explained in his newsletter, "People who have actually reported from the protests (see here or here) have by and large found them to be well-behaved." The vast majority of scary, violent images stem not from the protesters themselves, Waldman argues, but from the police crackdowns. "At the universities where the administrators had the sense to just let the students have their say, there has been almost no violence."

As the cable news has breathlessly covered, there was violence this week at UCLA. But even then, it was not the leftist protesters to blame, but a gang of far-right counter-protesters who rushed in and started to attack students. As ABC 7 reported, violence only broke out "when counter-protesters tried to break down the encampment." Unfortunately, this was framed by much of the media as "clashes" between protesters and the right-wing assailants. Any good faith reading of the situation is clear: The far-right demonstrators stormed the encampment and started the violence. The student protesters were defending themselves. 

Why a group of right-wingers decided to swarm on the UCLA students hasn't been thoroughly investigated yet, but here's one likely factor contributing to the choice: The Republican nominee for president, Donald Trump, told them they were entitled to assault unarmed, non-violent protesters. And he did so with his favorite tool: dishonest whataboutism.

"I wonder if that’s going to be the same kind of treatment they gave J6," Trump complained on Tuesday, falsely claiming the students were being violent and "a lot of people getting hurt very badly." 

Trump also claimed that the 2017 white supremacist riot in Charlottesville, Virginia, is "peanuts" compared to the current protests. As a reminder, one of the rioters — who explicitly said they were emboldened by Trump's election — murdered a woman and injured a number of others by running over them with his car. 

Trump's rhetoric is hamfisted, making it not hard at all to parse what he's saying: If the left "gets" to be violent, why can't his people be violent, too? The whine is dishonest in every way, of course. First, the leftist protesters are largely non-violent. Second, the few who do act up end up arrested, despite Trump's insinuations to the contrary. But his tactics have never needed to be fact-based to accomplish their goal of permitting his followers to be their worst selves. They already want to believe that the left is violent, so they feel justified in actually being violent.

By conflating a few outliers with all the protesters, centrist liberals are validating Trump's efforts to characterize the protests as "violent" — which, in turn, is being used to justify actual right-wing violence.

We saw how this works very clearly with the Capitol insurrection of January 6, 2021. For months, Trump's base had wallowed in right-wing propaganda that falsely accused both Black Lives Matter protesters and the largely imaginary "antifa" of practically burning down American cities during protests. (In reality, the protests after George Floyd's murder were 93% peaceful, with what little violence there was largely driven by police overreaction.) When Trump summoned a mob to Washington D.C. to help him steal an election, they did so by acting out their fantasies of what the "left" supposedly does, by rioting. Afterward, when they were arrested for their actual violence, the insurrectionists kept citing the made-up violence of Black Lives Matter in their legal defense, as if what other people did in their dreams justified what they did in reality. 

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Trump has not been especially coy about his longing for a repeat of January 6. He celebrates the Capitol riot at every rally. He begs his supporters to show up outside his criminal trial in Manhattan to intimidate the judge and jury. He hasn't had any takers on that front, because he hasn't been able to convince them his personal legal problems are connected to the culture war grievances that fuel MAGA. But resentment against progressive college kids, who are routinely demonized as sexy, spoiled brats in right-wing media? It didn't take much prompting to get violent right-wingers to attack. That is why the founder of the Proud Boys showed up at the New York protests. He knows that the insecurities about their own masculinity and virility can be used to motivate his followers into lashing out at the kids. 

Trump's celebratory attitude towards January 6, of course, is about encouraging his supporters to turn to violence to help him steal the 2024 election. During an interview with Time magazine, Trump said, "I think we're going to win and there won't be violence." When pressed about what happens he doesn't win, he replied, "And if we don't win, you know, it depends." Which is, of course, an unsubtle way to establish the binary choice: Let him have the White House, or violence. 

Even though his supporters are ignoring Trump's pleas to descend on his criminal trial, they do seem far more interested in heeding the call for election violence. As with the attack on college kids, the reason is that election violence is about their grievances, not just Trump's. It taps into the ongoing MAGA outrage that they are a minority, even as they identify as the only "real" Americans. Politico reported Wednesday that 38% of local election officials surveyed "have experienced threats, harassment or abuse due to their jobs." Large numbers of officials are quitting rather than putting up with these threats, which stem mostly, if not exclusively, from Trump's lies about "stolen" elections. 

While there's no logical link between the Gaza protests and Trump's anti-democracy conspiracy theories, the two share an emotional connective tissue in the MAGA imagination. For many Trump supporters, the protesters symbolize the young progressives that MAGA wants to eject from the body politic. Former George W. Bush advisor and current MAGA-tinged right-wing consultant Ari Fleischer straight up demanded that the government "Arrest, imprison, expel, and deport" college kids who peacefully protest. As Jamelle Bouie of the New York Times pointed out on Instagram, Fleischer is quite literally saying we should "strip them of their citizenship and kick them out of the country." 

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This is eliminationist rhetoric, and fascist to its core. It's telling conservatives not to learn to deal with the inevitability of change but to wallow in their belief that everything should stay exactly how they imagined it was when they were kids. And that if other people's differences make them uncomfortable, they are justified in reacting with maximum violence — arrest, imprison, expel, and deport — to simply erase people for having a different opinion. Coupled with lies about the protesters being "chaotic" or "violent," an entire rationale has emerged for Trump and his followers to use real violence to achieve these ends. 

This is a big reason why it's not just childish, but short-sighted of pundits and centrist Democrats to be lashing out at the student protesters in the often-hysterical tones being used. Whether or not one agrees that encampment-style protests are good or bad, cherry-picking a few bad actors to demonize the entire protest movement is only helping Trump lay the groundwork for future right-wing violence. Have a few protesters committed vandalism or yelled unforgivably bigoted things? Absolutely, and it's foolish to deny it. But by conflating a few outliers with all the protesters, centrist liberals are validating Trump's efforts to characterize the protests as "violent" — which, in turn, is being used to justify actual right-wing violence. When faced with hurt feelings over protesters making you uncomfortable, it's always worth remembering that adage: Shutting up costs nothing. Especially when emoting at hyperbolic volumes is only helping Trump plan for the next January 6. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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