A day after fistfights and shoving broke out at his planned event in Chicago, Donald Trump on Saturday blamed the violence on opponents who “taunted” and harassed his supporters and he continued to pledge he would unify the country.
The events of the night before had conjured a horrible flashback to the 1960s, when police and protesters fought in the streets of the same city during the Democratic National Convention in 1968. Thousands who had gathered for his appearance began scuffling after it was canceled, and then some continued the conflict outside.
Nothing about it was surprising: A flammable brew of populist anger, campaign mismanagement, a candidate’s own provocative encouragement and disruptive protesters finally found its fuse. The explosion was predictable, given tensions in the country around its changing demographic face and economic displacement that has left many fearful and upset receptive audiences for Trump’s surprisingly strong candidacy.
In his first appearance Saturday outside Dayton, Ohio, Trump said the Friday problems arose when “all of a sudden a planned attack just came out of nowhere.”
“My people are nice…they caused no problem,” he said. “They were taunted, they were harassed by these other people.”
He repeated his promise to build a wall on the border with Mexico and soon turned to criticizing President Obama.
“Our president has divided this country so badly,” Trump said. “I call him the great divider.”
“We have a divided country. We have black and white, income groups -- everybody hates everybody, even in Congress,” he said.
Unity — and the “peace” Trump asked of his event attendees — will be a hard sell, because the tumult surrounding his campaign plays to the desires of the participants.
Trump has yet to back down from any of the incendiary, race-based comments he has made during this campaign about Mexicans, Muslims and people in China and Japan who he says are taking American jobs. Moreover, his tough stance on matters such as building a wall on the Mexican border, and his history of drawing huge crowds, are central to his political argument that he alone is strong enough and popular enough to win the White House.
Although Republican establishment figures and his fellow candidates demanded that he call a halt to the turmoil, none of the candidates rescinded their support for Trump if he becomes the nominee.
Politically, it is probable that within elements of the Republican base, Friday’s events will cement support of him. Richard Nixon benefited from political and racial violence in 1968 at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago and elsewhere.
Trump’s crowds, while mostly peaceful, have included those instigating violence, and their actions have been applauded by other Trump supporters. Earlier this week, a 78-year-old Trump supporter sucker-punched a black protester being led out of the candidate’s event — and then threatened death to the man he had punched.
The anti-Trump cadres themselves played a role in the violence. Protesters who had been able to infiltrate his events in small bunches somehow on Friday were able to get into his Chicago event in vast numbers and force its cancellation — their largest anti-Trump victory to date and one that at least some of them will probably want to replicate.
Trump’s campaign staff and security teams are responsible for safety at the events, but they are — as Friday night showed — clearly not a match for the thousands who pour into his rallies.
The shock of seeing the results play out on television seems unlikely to change any of their actions. In many ways, Trump is the continuation of a long line of political figures who have played on the emotions of the crowd, often by using racial cues or outright statements to enrage their followers and outrage their opponents. This form of demagoguery has been particularly dangerous in the days of the civil rights movement and beyond, and in times of economic difficulty.
In 1968, running a third-party candidacy for the presidency, the former Democratic governor of Alabama, George Wallace, campaigned with the veneer of race and violence ever present. He blamed “anarchists” for demonstrating at his events and encouraged cameras to focus on them, thus feeding his campaign’s argument that the nation was beset by anarchy. He insisted that right-thinking Americans should “do away” with the demonstrators.
Wallace did not overtly talk about race, but he didn’t have to: He had been a public segregationist as governor. He also repeatedly brought up issues such as fair housing laws — initiated to protect minorities — as topics of concern. By the time he finished riling up the crowds, Washington Post political writer David Broder once wrote, they resembled “a lynch mob.”
The Republican strategy for taking back the South after Democratic President Lyndon Johnson signed civil rights and voting rights legislation led to other veiled activities.
Ronald Reagan, elected governor of California in 1966 after campaigning against the state’s fair housing act, kicked off his 1980 post-convention presidential campaign swing with an appearance near Philadelphia, Miss., where three young civil rights workers had been found dead 16 years earlier. Those slayings were attributed to members of the Ku Klux Klan and local law enforcement officers.
Reagan's speech that day segued directly from a denunciation of welfare to wording used by segregationists: “I believe in states' rights,” he said. His aides denied that his intent was racial.
Race also flavored the 1992 presidential campaign of a Reagan aide, Pat Buchanan, who mocked others in racial terms and said immigrants who refused to “assimilate” threatened the country.
But given the immediacy that today’s media environment allows, no one has been able to spread a race-inflected message further than Donald Trump.
He entered the race best known politically for challenging — without proof — President Obama’s citizenship. He immediately began campaigning for a wall to separate the U.S. and Mexico, and asserted that immigrants coming here illegally were “rapists” and “murderers.” He called for a halt to allowing Muslims to enter the country.
And he has, throughout, inflamed audiences with biting references to those who opposed him.
Hours before he was to appear in Chicago, the New York real estate mogul taunted demonstrators whose shouting interrupted him in St. Louis.
“Go home and get a job,” Trump snapped at the Missouri protesters. “Go home to Mommy.”
He has often seemed to use the disruptions as a device to demonstrate his own power: “Out, out, out!” he demanded a week ago in Warren, Mich., each time protesters interrupted. After he did, his supporters chanted “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!”
Trump has openly pined for “the old days,” when, he says, noisy demonstrators would be carried out of a political rally on stretchers.
“I’d like to punch him in the face,” he told a Las Vegas casino rally crowd last month when one protester was ejected.
His suggestion came true Wednesday when a white Trump supporter punched a black protester in Fayetteville, N.C., and declared to “Inside Edition” that “next time we see him, we might have to kill him.” (John McGraw was charged with assault and disorderly conduct in the incident.)
Protesters, sometimes affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement, have become more and more numerous at Trump events in recent weeks. In St. Louis, they prevented Trump from speaking for long stretches of time.
“Where are the police?” Trump asked. “Come on, police, get ‘em out. Let’s go. Let’s go. Come on.”
Trump also criticized the protesters, saying they were “destroying our country.” But he conceded, as he often does, that there was an up side to getting heckled.
“Can I be honest with you? It adds to the flavor,” he told his cheering supporters. “It really does. It makes it more exciting. I mean, isn’t this better than listening to a long boring speech?”
Decker reported from Cleveland and Finnegan from Los Angeles. Also contributing was Mark Z. Barabak in Vandalia, Ohio.