Commentary: At Trump rallies, echoes of Jacksonian era violence

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Pennsylvania Hall ablaze on the night of May 17, 1838.

Friday evening, March 11, inside the University of Illinois-Chicago Pavilion at South Racine Avenue and West Congress Parkway, a few dozen protesters waited uneasily amid supporters of Republican presidential candidate Donald J. Trump, a crowd about 6,000 strong. The protesters, mostly African American, Latino, and white UIC students, planned to disrupt Trump's xenophobic stump speech by chanting and locking arms, age-old techniques of resistance.

As the Trump campaign crowd began chanting "USA! USA!" and "Build that wall! Build that wall!" reports Keith O'Brien, writing for Politico, they steeled themselves against the possibility of violence. On several occasions in recent weeks, Trump supporters and security guards have manhandled protesters, even as they went limp or looked away from the vitriol aimed at them.

Thursday evening May 17, 1838, inside the brilliant new Pennsylvania Hall at Sixth and Race Streets, about 3,000 men and women, black and white, attending the Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women hosted by the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, waited nervously for the fearless polemicist Angelina Grimké to speak.

Since the start of the convention, hundreds and then thousands of white men had been collecting outside the hall. Opposed to the anti-slavery protest movement on principle, they bristled at the idea that black and white women should collaborate with each other, and men, in public. "They're not only speaking out against racism, but they're women, so you're not even supposed to know how to read and write, let alone write these powerful moving speeches," says Mark Kelly Tyler, pastor of Philadelphia's historic Mother Bethel Church, in "Disorder," the latest episode of the film documentary Philadelphia: The Great Experiment, which I co-write.

By the time Grimké, who lived in Germantown, and whose marriage on Spruce Street days before was rumored to be interracial (it wasn't), took the podium, about 15,000 furious people clamored outside the hall; a few were already inside. They wanted blood.

1838, the year after President Andrew Jackson left office, was a culminating year for the reactionary politics that colored his era, what scholars call Jacksonian America.

The slave-owning populist and Indian killer established a coarse tone that privileged violence over discourse, racism and xenophobia over progress. That year, in Harrisburg, Jacksonian Democrats pushed through a new Pennsylvania constitution that stripped African American men of the right to vote, removing them from the political process in the North just as laws against escaped slaves intensified.

Several commentators this electoral season have drawn comparisons between the demagoguery of Donald J. Trump and Jackson.

"He did what he wanted, and demanded respect," wrote broadcaster Steve Inskeep of Jackson in the New York Times. Both men achieved wealth through real estate and bullying; neither through consistency of message or command of policy. Trump appears, as Jackson did, to advocate for, as Inskeep wrote, "a certain idea of America - an America for white people."

Trump asserts this vision by advocating against immigrants and Muslims and he deputizes his supporters with an old privilege, to use violence to put down those who believe his words unjust. "Knock the crap out of them, seriously," he exhorted a crowd in Iowa. "I'll pay your legal fees. I promise I'll pay your legal fees."

The daring Philadelphia women who organized the anti-slavery convention a year after Jackson left office recognized, as did the Chicago students recently, they were stirring a beast. Outside Pennsylvania Hall, stevedores carried battering rams up from the port. Grimké told the audience to be unafraid; what was the danger compared with the life of a slave?

"The fire chief and the mayor show up to the mob and say, 'Gee golly wiz, you really shouldn't do this. This just isn't nice.' And then turn their backs and walk away," says Penn State professor of public history, Sharon Ann Holt, in "Disorder."

The deputized mob takes the cue and invades the hall. They break the windows, set fire to the library, chase down the abolitionists. Grimké organized Lucretia Mott and Charlotte Forten and the other abolitionists to form a human chain. It's the only way they got out alive.

With the crowd bristling inside the Chicago Pavilion, Donald Trump decided, at the last minute, to cancel his Chicago appearance. As O'Brien, of Politico, reported, the announcement set off a torrent of vitriol. "Even in the din," he wrote, "I could hear one Trump partisan chant: 'Runaway slaves! Runaway slaves!'" As Trump supporters closed in on them, they linked arms, refusing to respond, and pushed through to safety.

We should take it as a warning. Here in Philadelphia, the ruins of Pennsylvania Hall stood for years, symbol of the shameless cost of the demagogue and the climate of hate.

Nathaniel Popkin is editorial director of Hidden City Philadelphia and author of the novel "Lion and Leopard." nathaniel.popkin@gmail.com

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