13 March 2016

Sauce for the gander: what is Sanders' responsibility?

Fair is fair: if we want to hold Donald Trump responsible for his fans when they attack protesters -- if we want to say that Trump has a responsibility to tell his fans not to hit protesters, or not to wish they could be hit -- than Senator Sanders has to be held responsible to the same extent when avowed supporters try to shout Trump down at his rallies. That is, Sanders has to disavow any attempt to shut down Trump rallies and to remind his fans that Trump has as much right as any candidate to get his message out. To be clear, I feel pretty certain that Sanders is in no way encouraging anyone to make scenes at Trump rallies. But if one candidate is to be judged by those who support them, so must all the others. Like it or not, Trump was right this weekend when he said that the media would go berserk in a way we haven't really seen yet if his fans disrupted rallies by other candidates, especially the Democrats. He surrendered that moral high ground a bit when he threatened to have Sanders rallies disrupted, but the point remains valid independent of the man. The fact is, the left does get a free pass to an extent in cases like this because they're perceived as the common people speaking truth to power, while Trump, to the extent that he is perceived to preach "hate," is implicitly deemed eligible to be shouted down.

The real problem remains that there's a failure to communicate even before the hecklers get started. A typical scene took place yesterday: Trump repeatedly had to utter his "Get 'em out!" catchphrase as protesters rose up one by one. Finally he vowed that he would "take the country back" from them. He really needs to clarify from whom he means to take the country back, because people insist on hearing that he wants to take it back from ethnic minorities while restoring political if not also cultural primacy to whites. I really don't think that's what he means, but he shouldn't take it for granted that everyone knows what he means, especially if he believes that people are out to distort his message. I don't advise this thinking that he can clarify his position to everyone's satisfaction, since some people are bound to link or stake their personal identity to whatever political faction or class from whom Trump might want to reclaim the country. Unfortunately, it's probably impossible to completely detach Trump's sort of populist-conservative discourse from racial politics, since it seems inevitably at odds with the compensatory regime on which many minorities and women feel dependent for protection from perceived straight-white-male-christian hegemony. In turn, the other side is so convinced of its moral superiority, which could never be subject to a vote, that it finds an "all means necessary" defense against Trump tempting, however limited their means may actually prove, even though not all Americans will share their assumption that silencing a perceived hater is a moral victory. If Bernie Sanders still dreams of winning a national election, he needs to set these people straight and take responsibility for their future conduct without accepting blame for their past deeds. If Sanders himself entertains the idea that it's right for anyone to disrupt Trump's rallies and try to silence him, then in that respect he's no better than Trump himself and possibly worse. Nothing would be more likely to confirm Trump's perception of Sanders as a "Communist" in the worst sense of the word. Again, I don't think Sanders is guilty of ordering or approving of the disruptions, but if Trump continues to spin these incidents into a left-wing conspiracy it won't be enough for Sanders to be not guilty. He has to make a stand for civility as soon as possible and leave Trump to hang himself with his own words.

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