In The Citizen Audience Richard Butsch discusses changing social norms surrounding theater audiences in mid-19th century America. The Astor Place Riot, he argues, was connected to “a growing elite intolerance of the lower classes and lower-class resentment of their treatment.” This attitude is contrasted with political/cultural norms of the American Revolution, which historian Edward Countryman argues “gave rioting a new legitimation by identifying it directly with the American cause.”
This historical knowledge of attitudes toward disruptive audiences is useful when looking at Trump rallies. These events have been criticized because of the unruly behavior of both supporters and protestors. There was the “riot” that shut down a Chicago event. There was the man in North Carolina who sucker punched an anti-Trump protestor. There was the time Trump himself encouraged violence saying to an Iowa audience, “if you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of him, would you? … I will pay for the legal fees.”
The problem for Trump and the Republican Party is that an audience is representative of a brand’s identity and undermines a brand manager’s ability to control public perception of that brand. The audience and the brand identity for the Trump campaign is out of control because the campaign has inspired an atmosphere of violence. Even worse for Republicans, however unfair that narrative might be, violence at Trump rallies is part of a pattern that started with overt racism at McCain/Palin rallies in 2008, followed by similar behavior at tea party rallies.
Ben Smith and Jonathan Martin argued in Politico in 2009 that the challenge for the Republican Party was figuring out “how to effectively channel the deep emotion of the base while tamping down its excesses.” Seven years later these excesses, along with the oppositional antagonism they inspire, are still a problem for Republicans. Tensions have died down since Trump became the presumptive Republican nominee but there should still be concern that “excesses” may come roaring back to life in the heat of a general election.