Donald Trump mused yesterday that he might pay legal fees for the man who suckered-punched a peaceful protester as the latter was being led out of a campaign rally. This shouldn't come as a great surprise, given the ways Trump has been reacting to protesters over the last few weeks, ruminating nostalgically about the "old days" when they'd be "carried out on a stretcher" and saying things like "Try not to hurt him. If you do, I'll defend you in court." But it's still extraordinary.
Freelance violence has always been a part of American politics. What's strange is to see a candidate encouraging that violence with only the barest fig leaf of deniability. (Confronted about the punching incident at the last GOP debate, Trump declared that he did "not condone" it. Three days later, he was talking on national television about paying the puncher's court costs.) This isn't unprecedented in American history, but it doesn't have much recent precedent. Instead we've had impostures: liberals who pretended Sarah Palin's "never retreat, instead reload" was meant literally, conservatives who did the same for Barack Obama's "get in their face." To watch Trump telling thugs that he might cover their legal bills is to see just how counterfeit those controversies were.
The chaos on the Trump tour has amped up in the last few days. Trump-lovers and Trump-haters brawled at a speech in St. Louis and at a cancelled rally in Chicago, and then a man tried to rush the stage when the candidate spoke in Dayton. With those events in the background, a lot of anti-Trump commentary over the weekend has been shot through with a fear that the social order is breaking down. (Paradoxically—or maybe not so paradoxically—that's one of the same fears that has fueled Trump's rise.) So bear in mind that we're still a long way short of the amount of political violence that once was routine in America. The Trump brawls are like last year's bump in murder rates after a long decline, or the return of riots in Ferguson and Baltimore: They could be a sign that the country is taking a more vicious turn, but it's also possible that we're just so used to the recent level of social peace that any disruption of it feels huge.
But you needn't think we're on the verge of returning to 1968 to be unsettled by Trump's comments. His words speak to the candidate's character in ways that highlight how he might behave if he ever gets his hands on the machinery of the state. If you think the Bill of Rights is in bad shape now, just wait til this thin-skinned bully decides the federal bureaucracy is his personal revenge kit. A man who winks at a little lawless violence among his fans isn't going to have many objections to lawless government.