Trump audiences: Fired up! Ready to rumble!

Curator's Note

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.


Good post Robert. I'm interested in this question of audience/voting base. On the one hand, it seems like you're saying the violent audiences of Trump's rallies are going to be a problem for the Republicans as their brand becomes identified with that unruliness, implying that this will alienate a larger voting base. Yet on the other hand, you also argue that Trump's audiences are actually just the latest, and perhaps most overt, iteration of a increasingly disruptive, violent, and unruly insurgent Republican voting bloc. Does this pattern seem to imply that this unruly voting bloc is becoming the new Republican base? or are they merely an obstacle that must be appeased now (much like the left-side of the Democratic party is continually "appeased"during the primary by Centrist candidates moving to the left long enough to secure a nomination--*cough, Hillary, cough*)? At what point do we shift from saying something like "Trump and his supporters are making the Republicans look bad" to saying "geez, what's wrong with the Republicans that this is the guy they want for president"?

I have a few thoughts about what's happening with Trump's audience. First off, as I wrote this we seem to be on the cusp of a shift where it isn't just Trump supporters who are unruly but his opposition protestors seem to be getting out of hand. Just before logging in here I saw a tweet with a picture of a Trump supporter who had eggs thrown at her by anti-Trump protestors. So I think a big problem for the coming general election season will be the tension between pro and anti Trump forces. The questions will be (a) how the media portray these verbal and physical conflicts (that I definitely think will happen) and (b) how Trump himself plays them, because he will definitely spin the tension as the product of unreasonable, hateful, and violent protestors picking on his "silent majority" supporters. We've already seen that with the way Trump spun the "sucker punch" incident in North Carolina. How my points a and b play out will depend on how much tensions are escalated between the two sides. Finally, as for the GOP's brand in relation to the audience's behavior, I do think this is an ongoing problem for them. The Trump campaign rallies are just the latest version of stuff that was happening at McCain/Palin rallies and later at tea party events. I think, given the ascent of Trump, there's not much the Republicans can do. This audience is representative of their party's brand, at least for now.

Great points, Rob. I agree that we should not look at Trump in isolation but as the culmination of years of Republican scapegoating and fearmongering. The only thing is that I would push that endeavor back decades. The problem for the GOP now is that they are basically scraping the bottom of the barrel. They have a problem with integrating new segments of society into their ranks because they are unwilling to anger their base. It's not going to stop with Trump. They are in real trouble with this. Also, I think we should make some distinction between what the media call "riots" and what are actually protest events. We should also look at how the other two candidates on the Democratic side have responded differently than Trump. To the best of my knowledge, I have not heard either one of the Democratic candidates threaten violence at the convention if they don't get what they consider a fair shake.

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