On a sunny afternoon July 9 at the Alaska Airlines Center, the crowd had a jubilant attitude, wearing familiar red hats, waving flags and holding signs. The assembled masses had come to see former president Donald Trump, backed by a supporting cast of local and national figures and cartoon characters: former Gov. Sarah Palin, Senate candidate Kelly Tshibaka, MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell. The atmosphere fell somewhere between a church revival meeting and a Harlem Globetrotters game — or, less charitably, a pro-wrestling match, a venue in which Trump has performed before — made all the more fitting by the sports-arena setting. Out-of-town vendors sold branded merchandise on the sidewalk.
Trump and the others who took the stage before him played the hits, so to speak — rolling out familiar lines, bashing liberals and the media, and tossing plenty of rhetorical red meat to the crowd. It had the air of a spectacle, but the mood wasn’t nearly so angry or aggrieved as it was on Jan. 6, 2021, when Trump supporters stormed the Capitol in an attempt to stop the certification of President-elect Joe Biden’s victory. At the Alaska Airlines Center, the show was politics as entertainment, and the members of the crowd had come to support their team.
In truth, politics and entertainment have always been closely intertwined in the American civic arena; it’s inescapable and not inherently negative. To succeed in either, it helps to have a strong, magnetic personality and a gift for oratory — for being able to sell a vision to an audience.
But it was a wholly different scene that played out Tuesday at the Anchorage Assembly meeting, as members of the municipality’s legislative branch considered a measure to codify the process for removing a mayor. A scene much more akin to the appalling events of Jan 6. To be clear, drafting policy that would allow the Assembly to remove a sitting mayor is a provocative and wrong action. But that was no excuse for the menacing behavior of some members of the public who came to voice opposition to the ordinance. Some who testified made implied or explicit threats toward Assembly members, with one woman challenging Assembly chair Suzanne LaFrance to a fight and others requiring an increased police presence in the chambers to keep the peace. The mood recalled the ugly scenes in the past two years when members of the public screamed at Assembly members over COVID-19 restrictions, following them to their vehicles and even their houses. As political speech goes, it was beyond the pale.
The irony in the stark contrast between the atmosphere at the two events is that there was almost certainly substantial overlap between the attendees at both. At the Trump rally, they were laughing and enjoying the political theater, but at the Assembly meeting, everyone had their elbows out.
And that’s the danger in treating politics like a sport: When we see those on the other side of the political aisle as not just ideological rivals but somehow a malevolent force to be opposed at all costs so our “team” can win, it grants us the mental license to treat them as enemies rather than public servants with a different vision for our city, state or country. It also enables the dangerous mindset that the end — the “right” side being in power — somehow justifies the means, even if that involves bullying and threatening public officials or passing divisive laws to try and heel another branch of government.
There are deep, substantive differences of opinion in our community about our best path forward. But no one is well served by the attitude that it’s somehow possible to convince elected officials to act a particular way through implied or explicit threats of violence or political threats of removal. The endorsement of violence in service of political ends would signify a full embrace of thuggery — and a full retreat from the principles that are supposed to embody the American system of government.