A protester and supporter get into an altercation at a Trump rally in Tucson Saturday. Credit: Mamta Popat/Arizona Daily Star via AP

What’s most impressive—and frightening—about Donald Trump is the size of his fan base. Trump could disappear, I commented in a recent post, but they won’t: “There are tens of millions of them now. They are a fundamental piece of American reality.” Trump didn’t create these multitudes, but thanks to him now we know they’re there. Even more importantly, now they know they’re there.

Their numbers frighten the left and appall the right. Kevin Williamson of the National Review wrote an celebrated essay a few days ago in which he blew off the grievances of Trump supporters and blamed their miseries on themselves.

It is a lie, wrote Williamson, “that the white working class that finds itself attracted to Trump has been victimized by outside forces. It hasn’t. The white middle class may like the idea of Trump as a giant pulsing humanoid middle finger held up in the face of the Cathedral, they may sing hymns to Trump the destroyer and whisper darkly about ‘globalists’ and—odious, stupid term—’the Establishment,’ but nobody did this to them. They failed themselves.” 

Now up to cruising speed, Williamson continued: 

The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin. What they need isn’t analgesics, literal or political. They need real opportunity, which means that they need real change, which means that they need U-Haul. If you want to live, get out of Garbutt.

And so we see, thanks to Trump, the conservative movement beginning to eat its own, its intellectuals turning against rabble they can no longer count on to swallow whatever medicine they’re spooned. Who can argue against “real opportunity”? But if real opportunity requires “real change,” Williamson prescribes a U-Haul. The rabble thinks the change is Trump.

Other writers are a little kinder to Trump’s multitudes. Paul Krugman shook his head at Williamson’s essay and commented that although Trump is peddling fantasies, “at least he’s acknowledging the real problems ordinary Americans face, not lecturing them on their moral failings. And that’s an important reason he’s winning.”

On the far side of the same New York Times op-ed page, David Brooks was saying this: “Trump voters are a coalition of the dispossessed. They have suffered lost jobs, lost wages, lost dreams. The American system is not working for them, so naturally they are looking for something else.”

And Clarence Page, in Sunday’s Tribune, commented, “Trump has found an eager audience, particularly in displaced working-class Americans looking for strong-sounding alternatives to both parties’ conventional leaders.

“His supporters deserve to be heard,” Page went on. “From Trump, we’ve already heard more than enough.”

A lot of people agree. When Trump shows up to speak they’re in his face, not to mention in the faces of anyone who’s showed up to cheer him on. On CNN last Saturday, I saw protesters blocking traffic on one of Phoenix’s busiest streets as sheriff Joe Arpaio, sounding patient and rueful, allowed that they left him no choice but to step in soon and make arrests: cars needed to get moving, and Trump supporters needed to be able to get to his rally.

Signs waved in the air. “Love Trumps Hate,” said one. “Stand Against Racism.” “No Platform for Fascists.” Later in the day, an NBC News story out of Arizona that I read online began on this note:

“A Donald Trump rally that began with near-constant interruptions reached a violent crescendo Saturday when a protester was punched and kicked while being escorted out.”

I suspect most of these protesters fear their actions could be counterproductive. Trump gets to have it both ways: he can rouse his regulars with lines like “I’d like to punch him in the face” yet bask in victimhood and tar his enemies as the real enemies of free speech. But those enemies can’t help themselves. Their blood is up. Tyrants must be resisted.

But why protest when they could proselytize? For the reasons acknowledged by Krugman, Brooks, and Page, Trump’s attracting marginalized Americans. Some are racist thugs, but others are victims of circumstance and the very Americans for whom, though apparently not to whom, Bernie Sanders, for one, says he speaks. Why do Trump’s opponents antagonize these people when they could be trying to win them over?

How deep is their passion for Trump, anyway? How would Trump’s multitudes respond to signs that say “You Can Do Better Than This Guy.” How many would think,Yeah, but he’s all we’ve got? One clear takeaway from the Republican debates is that although Trump is a bully and blowhard, the other candidates are ideological robots, all programmed to spew identical cant about Obamacare, climate change, and Planned Parenthood. Cut corporate taxes and nix the Iran deal and they’ll be happy—and what good does that do the welder in Phoenix who hasn’t worked in five years?

Even though Williamson will dismiss him as a failure with only himself to blame, this welder has decided to go to the rally and check out Trump. To the demonstrator certain Trump must be opposed, the guy might as well be shouting Sieg Heil!

But maybe he’s as uncertain as the friend of mine who this weekend asked on Facebook, “Do you think it is right to go protest at a Trump rally with the purpose of stopping it? (Thinking about this all night.)”

I’d suggest going to the rally, but mainly to try to find common ground with people attending it. Even if my friend and her friends don’t make headway with a single Trump supporter (and that I doubt), the network cameras will paint a more attractive picture of Trump’s opposition in action if it’s trying to build bridges. Unlikely as it seems at the moment, I think the election could very well be decided in the end on the basis of comparative demonstrations of maturity.