Unless you just woke from a coma, you know what’s been going on at Donald Trump’s rallies over the past few days. After months of protesters interrupting his events and being treated with increasing ferocity, things have started boiling over. In Florida on Tuesday, a Breitbart reporter named Michelle Fields tried to ask a question about affirmative action, but Trump’s campaign manager grabbed her arm and nearly threw her to the ground—and then started up a Twitterstorm of smears claiming the incident never happened even though there was an eyewitness report, audio tape, and videotape of the incident.
In North Carolina on Wednesday, a Trump supporter sucker punched a protester who was being led out by security guards. On Friday morning in St. Louis, a Trump rally erupted into clashes both inside and outside the arena, leading to dozens of arrests.
Finally, on Friday evening in Chicago, thousands of Trump supporters and protesters engaged in verbal clashes and massive disruption hours before the rally was scheduled to start. A campaign spokesman said that after “meeting with law enforcement,” Trump decided to cancel the rally. The altercation then moved outside, where five people were arrested and a CBS reporter was detained covering the melee.
So what was Trump’s response? “I don’t take responsibility,” he said. “Our freedom of speech has been violated totally.” Other Republicans agreed. Ted Cruz criticized the tone of Trump’s rallies, but said the real responsibility “lies with protesters who took violence into their own hands.” Marco Rubio said Trump needed to “own up” to his rhetoric, but “there are people that are protesting tonight that are part of organized efforts to disrupt this event.” Sean Hannity also defended Trump: “There’s no words that inspire people to hate.”
And Trump himself delivered the bottom line: “This increases the vote for Trump.”
Is Trump right? There’s no question that there’s an organized effort by protesters to disrupt Trump’s rallies. So far, though, they’ve been loud but peaceful. Does this mean the public will blame Trump, or will they conclude that the protesters are deliberately trying to stir up violence and they’re just getting what they asked for?
Outside the right-wing press, the coverage of Trump’s rallies has been almost uniformly anti-Trump. But it’s obvious that Trump is reveling in this, and he has an animal cunning for finding the right angle to turn public opinion to his side. This is a delicate moment. Both sides have a point: Trump should be allowed to hold rallies, but he shouldn’t be allowed to pretend that he’s not consciously encouraging both the protests and the increasing violence. He obviously thinks it will help his cause in the end. Stay tuned.