Friday night, the streets of Chicago were boiling over with a toxic mixture of politics and violence. Meanwhile, Twitter was clogged with the triumphant tweeting of liberals.
Donald Trump had just called off his rally in the face of widespread protests, and many on the left were thrilled: We did it! We stopped Trump! We finally showed how to beat fascism!
I'm sorry, but you did no such thing. What you did was feed a fire that will likely grow in response.
Yes, Trump ignited the flames — and he now seems to be going out of his way to stoke them. But the response of those of us who want to contain the fire should be to do everything we can to deprive it of oxygen. We certainly shouldn't be showering it with additional sparks.
This is not an argument about morality. It's an argument about tactics.
Donald Trump is a vile and vulgar authoritarian — a man willing and eager to say anything to get attention, a demagogue who appears ready to burn down the Republican Party and plunge the American political system into chaos in order to advance his personal ambitions of power. It's crucially important that he fails in his bid for the presidency — preferably by falling short of winning the Republican nomination, with the next best option being a landslide loss in the general election.
What's the best way to ensure that this happens? It depends. If you're a Republican in a state that hasn't yet voted, you should cast a ballot for someone else — anyone else. But what if you're a Democrat or someone further to the left? In that case, the answer, for the moment, is: Do nothing at all.
In a colossal act of civic irresponsibility, the GOP and the media decided to allow Trump to reach and remain atop the polls for months without having to face serious scrutiny and criticism. Trump still managed to score the highest unfavorable ratings of any presidential candidate in either party. And now that negative stories and advertisements have begun to run, those numbers are rising even higher.
What do you think is likely to happen when the Democratic National Committee and the campaign of the party's nominee for president open fire on him without restraint in the summer and fall?
Trump is on track to lose massively in November. But one of the very few things that could change that is more nights like Friday on the streets of Chicago.
What did the protests actually accomplish? Yes, the Trump rally was called off. But the candidate himself ended up getting hours of free air time out of it, as he called in to MSNBC, Fox News, and CNN to discuss the night's events over unsettling footage of mob violence. He also got to portray himself as a martyr for free speech and his supporters as the victims of intolerance and aggression at the hands of left-wing activists. And in the days since Friday, Trump has gone even further — to blame the violence at his rallies on "our communist friend" Bernie Sanders and threaten ominously that he might begin sending his supporters to disrupt Sanders events as retaliation.
Why would Trump embrace and encourage political violence instead of condemn it? Because he intuitively understands something that left-wing protesters apparently do not: When anarchy spreads, it's the toughest, most authoritarian candidate who benefits, since he gets to sell himself as the only one capable of restoring law and order. So if you want to stop Trump, don't contribute to stirring up trouble at his rallies.
Understanding this isn't complicated. All it takes is rudimentary analysis of the political situation. Why, then, are growing numbers of progressives going to Trump campaign events looking for trouble, and sometimes acting in foolish ways that might plausibly result in someone ending up dead? And why are people cheering on such behavior on social media?
Mostly, I suspect, because they are primarily concerned about their own moral stature — about staking out a position of political purity, about taking a dramatic and bold public stand against racism and the rise of a distinctively American form of fascism in our midst. Because they desperately want to do something to stop Trump and what he represents.
The instinct is admirable. Even noble. But it is also extremely foolish.
If you want Trump's campaign to fail, let it run its course without providing it with further fuel. Either the Republican Party will take it down between now and July, or the Democrats will do so between July and early November.
Provoking Trump supporters and engaging in behavior that increases the likelihood that violence will break out at campaign events will not make Trump's election any less likely. And it just might give him an additional boost.
Sometimes doing nothing is the most effective thing to do.