Donald Trump, reality television performer and the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee for the presidency, is nostalgic for violence this Easter. MSNBC’s Rachael Maddow recently documented Trump’s escalating use of violent rhetoric against those who protest at his rallies. Trump has suggested these protesters should be attacked, ripped from their seats and carried out on stretchers. He has implied that ‘these people’ are unemployed and that they may be foreigners. He has said these protesters - some of which have been African Americans and Muslims protesting the campaign - are ruining the Unites States. He has criticised other candidates for allowing women to protest. Trump has even seemed to speak fondly of past times when violence against protesters was common. He has called these times the “good old days”, to the cheers of his supporters.
References to the good old days are often used to picture a recent history that was simpler. It is an important function of the conservative imagination, to believe the past was a better time. Given Trump’s popular call for the good old days to return, let’s consider a handful of moments in recent history when protesters in the United States were met with violence.
The Night of Terror
The Silent Sentinels, a non-violent suffragette group, were arrested for protesting the sexist policies of President Woodrow Wilson on an evening in 1919 that came to be known as the Night of Terror. After their arrest, the women were consequently beaten, kicked, choked, chained to beds and knocked unconscious by prison guards, leading to the death of one suffragette, Alice Cosu.
Columbine Mine Massacre
Coal miners and their families faced gunfire in the Columbine Mine Massacre in Colorado in 1927 when strikers were confronted by state police and guards armed with rifles and machine guns. The media continued to called for open violence against ethnic strikers, resulting in more attacks that killed six.
Axe Handle Saturday and the Civil Rights Movement
Civil rights protesters conducting a peaceful sit-in in Jacksonville in 1960 were beaten by a mob, which included members of the Ku Klux Klan, on a day branded Axe Handle Saturday. Similar scenes shocked America on Bloody Sunday in Selma, five years later, when civil rights marchers were brutalised by state troopers and a local mob brandishing batons, attack dogs and tear gas. The Ku Klux Klan even attacked protesters as recently as 1979 in the Greensboro Massacre in North Carolina, partnering with the American Nazi Party and killing five (Trump remains the candidate currently endorsed by the KKK, by the way).
Kent State Massacre
Four students protesting the Cambodian Campaign were shot dead in the Kent State Massacre in Ohio in 1970 when the National Guard opened fire. This event led to widespread student demonstrations and the consequent Hard Hat Riot, when hundreds of construction workers attacked young protesters in New York.
White Night Riots
LGBTI activists and protesters defiantly marched on San Francisco City Hall in 1980 after Harvey Milk’s murderer received a lenient sentence. Police used black tape to hide their badge numbers before attacking the protesters with nightsticks and tear gas.
Women were tortured in prison. Workers and their families were killed. Students were shot dead on their own campus. LGBTI protesters were beaten and targeted by police. This is America’s recent history of violence against public protest. These would seem to be the good old days to which Donald Trump is referring, where violence, arrest, torture and death is the price paid by protesters. His timing is apt. It’s Good Friday, after all.
Paying the Price
The events of Good Friday have a range of theological interpretations. The early Church Fathers saw the death of Jesus as a moral symbol and a liberating struggle against evil. Others saw it as a spiritual business transaction where the devil was paid a price for the souls of humanity. In the 11th century, the transaction became a political gesture, the price paid to a God that resembled a feudal lord. 16th century Protestant Reformers reframed it as a legal settlement. Whichever soteriological camp that theologians fall into, there is one very clear reason why the rebel-rabbi died on Golgotha two thousand years ago:
Christ’s death was the price of protest.
Christ’s death did indeed pay the price. He was killed for protesting against power and profit. Holy Week directly links Christ’s public displays to his arrest, torture and execution. Christ enters Jerusalem on the back of a donkey on Palm Sunday, recreating the scene from Zechariah 9:9 for the crowds and invoking the image of a new, peaceful king. The following day, Christ is angered at the sight of commerce in the Temple, turning over the money tables and driving out those who sought to profit from the poor. In these events, Christ challenged the violence of Rome and the exploitation of the market. The gospels state that the authorities then began plotting his death and, by exploiting the sentiment of an angry public, the cheers of the crowds soon came: crucify him.
The Night of Terror, the Columbine Mine Massacre, Axe Handle Saturday, the Kent State Massacre, the White Night Riots, the list goes on. We can add Good Friday too. Donald Trump may just seem a provocative opportunist and an amoral magnate but the good old days that he and his supporters want returned were very real and anything but good. Whether Trump’s actions could ever resemble his ridiculous rhetoric remains to be seen and Western democracy is still a comparatively free place for protest. While recent anti-protest legislation passed by Australian state governments is concerning, there are dark parts of this earth where dissenters still face immediate violence, even crucifixion. Let’s remember what the price has been for those in the past who have protested against violent power and profits that exploit the poor. It has been beatings and bullets. It has been arrest and torture. On Good Friday, it was the cross.
When Donald Trump talks about the good old days, he’s also talking about Golgotha, and these calls for violence against protesters are beginning to sound familiar.
Anthony N. Castle is a writer based in Adelaide. He writes on the crossroads of social justice and pop culture.