There remains a chance — or at least a hope — that the violent storm blowing in over American politics this primary season will move on without further damage to the country.
More specifically, there is a chance — or at least a hope — that the violence witnessed at recent rallies for Donald Trump will subside. And that those most inclined to physical confrontation might step back from the brink.
But the videos of violent scuffles at the aborted Trump rally in Chicago on Friday continue to play on cable TV, keeping the wound fresh.
There is nothing new about Americans being politically divided and even polarized. But as angry emotions have been building throughout the campaign, we are moving to the next phase, to the point where even small provocations can cause those emotions to ignite.
If you are looking to light the fuse, consider this tweet from @realDonaldTrump on Sunday, directed at Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, whom Trump blames, in part, for the bad night in Chicago:
There is no evidence that Sanders or his campaign were involved in organizing the protest in Chicago, although some independent organizations that support Sanders clearly were. Sanders T-shirts were visible among the protesters but were scarcely predominant.
But Trump’s threat communicates an unmistakable message, not to Sanders but to Trump’s own supporters. This is less like a “dog whistle” and more like a bugle call, much like the instructions Trump has sometimes given his supporters at rallies.
As protesters have been led away by police or security, Trump has said he wishes he could punch them in the face, or that in the old days protesters went out on a stretcher, or that someone should “knock the crap out of them” and that he would pay legal fees for someone who did.
On Sunday, Trump told Chuck Todd on NBC’s Meet the Press (where Trump is a guest on a regular basis) that he “actually instructed my people to look into” paying the legal fees for the North Carolina man who punched a black protester being led away by police at a Trump rally on Thursday.
“I’m going to see, you know, what was behind this,” Trump said, “because he was very taunting; he was very loud, very disruptive.”
Trump also said he had heard the protester had made an obscene gesture toward a man “who just wants America to be great again.”
It is not too late to dial back from this kind of incitement. The best way to do so would be for all of the candidates in both parties to stop looking for ways to use the violence issue to their advantage and find ways to reduce the tension instead.
That was not the spirit in evidence over the weekend, as the respective camps issued statements blaming each other and advancing their own narratives.
Trump on Sunday also called himself a messenger for “a lot of people who are angry.” Sanders, too, has consistently appealed to the frustration of those who feel themselves disenfranchised in a “rigged economy” run by what he calls fraudulent financiers and a corrupt campaign-finance system.
This is not to deny these movements their cause, only to say that their emotional component can be easily inflamed and the shared sense of outrage can be readily provoked.
It is as if the Tea Party of recent years had marched down the street and met another march coming at it head-on, featuring Occupy Wall Street bolstered by Black Lives Matter.
Different as they are, all of these groups would be taking to the street for the same reason: to protest their sense of loss and their exasperation with conventional politics and candidates.
Even Barack Obama, who seemed to many the ultimate game changer eight years ago, now seems to have unified the country only in that he has dissatisfied a sizable group on the left as much as he has outraged the right. And he has had no success convincing a certain strain of activist in his own party that they should be patient, or should see the glass as half-full.
Trump and Sanders, in their highly contrasting ways, have thrived on this frustration and exasperation.
Hillary Clinton, for all her adaptations, has been unable to find the key or even speak the language. And a long roster of Republicans have retired from the field who had hoped to use the anger of the Tea Party as fuel — and the anger of activists on the left as foil.
Those GOP rivals who remain spent much of the weekend seeking ways to leverage the sudden media fixation on violence to maximize their own vote shares in the five big states holding primaries Tuesday.
That was why, in part, Trump exploded on CNN when asked about disapproval from “fellow Republicans.”
“My fellow Republicans are running against me,” he said, claiming, “There’s been nobody injured at my rallies: zero, zero. You’re making it sound like everybody’s broken down and injured. Give me a break.”
As for those primaries Tuesday, the consensus judgment, based on polling and reporting, is that the confrontations last week in North Carolina, St. Louis and Chicago will alienate some potential supporters but also galvanize those at the heart of the Trump movement.
If true, that will extend a trend that has been evident in the Trump phenomenon since the New Hampshire primary on Feb. 9. His hard base of backers rarely changes, typically ranging from the mid-30s to low-40s in percentage terms. In a multi-candidate field, this has usually been more than enough to win — and often to win big.
If the field should narrow to just two candidates, however, Trump’s share of the vote might not be enough to win one-on-one, as some hypothetical match-ups indicate. That could block his nomination on the first ballot and break open the convention in Cleveland.
And in the longer run, as other polling also indicates, the harder his base, the harder it is for him to reach beyond it in the general election.
In that sense, the combative attitude that contributes to the tension of the current moment can actually lower the ceiling on Trump’s upside expectations — and lower the odds on his becoming president as well.
Trump risks driving his negatives (voters who say they could never vote for him) still higher at a time when they are already the highest of any candidate in either party.
That is why in the end, the climate of heightened tension may prove more hazardous to Trump perhaps than to anyone else.