Trump’s “Rule of the Mob” Panic

It’s a rhetorical strategy that for centuries has been used to thwart popular democracy

October 9, 2018

Conservative supporters of Brett Kavanaugh have a new talking point: Those who fought against his nomination to the Supreme Court are nothing more than an angry “mob.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Judiciary Committee members Chuck Grassley and Orrin Hatch all used the word in recent days to refer to peaceful protesters who organized to block Kavanaugh amid credible allegations of sexual assault against him. A vote for Kavanaugh, Grassley, the committee chair, said Friday, is a vote to “say no to mob rule.”

President Trump, as so often, went further, using the term to tar the entire opposing party. “In their quest for power, the radical Democrats have turned into an angry mob,” he told a rally on Saturday in Kansas. “Republicans believe in the rule of law, not the rule of the mob.”

It’s not hard to see the political strategy here: Ahead of the midterms, gin up fears among conservative voters about vengeful progressives hungering to send every white male who ever told a dirty joke to the guillotine. But the right’s sudden embrace of the “mob” epithet is much more dangerous than politics as usual.

In fact, the fear of the mob reflects a strain of antidemocratic thinking that, since the Founding, has helped thwart efforts to ensure political equality among all Americans. It’s fitting that today it’s being reinserted into the public debate by a political movement that’s fighting across the board to restrict democracy and the First Amendment and to hold back majority rule.

Many of the Founders openly expressed alarm about the prospect of extremist mob rule — which they often conflated with popular rule itself. “Democracies,” James Madison wrote in 1787, “have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention.” Alexander Hamilton, speaking at the Constitutional Convention the same year, pushed for a system that would resist radical change pushed by “the many,” and thereby “check the imprudence of democracy.” As the Heritage Foundation, the most powerful conservative think tank in Washington, has explained: “The Framers founded a republic [not a pure democracy] because they recognized that mob rule could be just as great a threat to liberty as the rule of a king.” No surprise, then, that the Constitution that emerged contained several antidemocratic features — the Electoral College, no right to vote — that continue to cause problems to this day.

This fear that giving too much political power to the masses will lead to radical, disastrous change has resurfaced repeatedly since. One influential pundit of the post-Civil War era opposed allowing the large numbers of newly arrived European immigrants to vote — a popular stance at the time — because, he wrote, they “want equality more than they want liberty,” calling universal suffrage “a questionable blessing.” Nearly a century later, Robert Welch, the founder of the Birch Society, the far-right group that some historians have called a forerunner to Trumpism, lamented the democratic reforms of the Progressive era, which included the popular election of senators and the first campaign finance laws. Welch called democracy “the last direct step of any nation and any people on the road to an unbridled mob-ocratic dictatorship.”

These days, with conservatives facing an unprecedented grassroots mobilization against Trump, as well as longer-term demographic headwinds that threaten to leave them outnumbered, we’re seeing renewed efforts to rein in the power of the mob. Since Trump was elected, 20 states have passed or introduced bills aimed at curbing the same kind of popular protests, strongly protected by the First Amendment, that so frightened McConnell, Grassley, et al. A Florida law — a kind of Stand Your Ground for motorists — makes it harder to hold drivers liable if they hit a protester. And an Arizona measure allows protesters to be prosecuted under racketeering laws like RICO, which is usually used to go after organized crime. (What’s especially remarkable about these laws is that the popular protests they’re targeting have in fact been remarkably peaceful.) Separately, as citizen-led ballot initiatives have emerged as a key tactic for raising the minimum wage, providing workers with sick days, stopping fracking, and more, we’ve seen efforts in some states to make such initiatives harder to organize — an outright assault on popular democracy. 

You can see the same dynamic, of course, in the array of restrictive voting laws and partisan gerrymanders that work to reduce the political power of ordinary voters. And the Supreme Court on which Kavanaugh will sit looks poised to further undermine the principle of political equality by putting the Voting Rights Act out of its misery once and for all and by continuing to strike down laws that aim to reduce the outsize influence of big political donors.

In other words, stoking fear about the power of the mob may be an election-season tactic to mobilize conservative voters, but it’s more than that, too. It represents a deeply rooted ideology about how power in America should be distributed.  And it’s part of a dangerous, anti-democratic campaign to delegitimize public protest and even mass political participation itself at a time when they represent the single greatest threat to those currently in charge.

(Image: Chip Somodevilla/Getty)