It's not easy to turn Donald Trump into an object of sympathy, but the hotheads disrupting his rallies are pulling it off. They may see their invasions as a brave effort to stop a frightening, divisive political force. But others — not just Trump followers — see privileged college kids stomping on someone's right to free speech.
The "others" are who Trump's political foes should worry about. The optics of Trump under physical attack — and the little people supporting him treated with contempt — move the focus away from the bombast Trump is peddling.
It's true that Trump supporters have roughed up peaceful protesters on the street and should be held accountable. But it's also true that a person renting a hall for a rally has a right to invite or disinvite whomever he chooses — this according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
Furthermore, it's disingenuous to assert that Trump is calling for violence when he makes such bellicose-sounding remarks as "I'd like to punch him in the face." Trump is talking New York-ese. In New York, "get outta here" means "I disagree." It's not an eviction notice.
Trump's clever responses to disrupters — "go back to mommy," "bye-bye" — are delivered in a mocking tone designed to belittle rather than threaten. ("Arrest her, arrest her," meanwhile, was directed to law enforcement, not the mob.)
Some Trump followers obviously fail to view rhetoric through a regional linguistic lens. Populists tend to attract emotional people who identify strongly with their hero. And their trumpeting of dark forces being arrayed against the public interest attracts a good share of paranoids.
So it's not totally surprising when an inflamed Trump supporter lashes back at a heckler. But that's not Trump's fault.
Nor was it Bernie Sanders' fault when an erstwhile follower rushed Trump's stage in Dayton, Ohio, and had to be subdued by the Secret Service. Sanders has plainly stated that his campaign does not organize these confrontations.
But Sanders does himself no favors by linking such events to the contention that Trump was "provoking violence." After the Chicago scuffle, Sanders wrote, "What caused the violence at Trump's rally is a campaign whose words and actions have encouraged it on the part of his supporters."
The fact remains that Sanders followers were trying to physically disrupt the Trump event in Chicago. As one proudly told the media, "Our whole purpose was to shut it down." That doesn't sound like innocent bystanding.
Hillary Clinton and Trump's Republican foes have unwisely picked up on the Trump-provokes-this line. Everyone repeat: The First Amendment protects vile speech.
The fact also remains that Sanders supporters are invading Trump rallies while Trump people are not bothering with his. A much-quoted tweet from Trump — "Be careful Bernie, or my supporters will go to yours!" — only underscored that reality.
Trump is so wily. Over the weekend, he told the talk shows, "I don't condone violence." He noted that he canceled the rally in Chicago to avoid violent confrontation while expressing relief that "we haven't had a real injury."
And he wields a weaponized humor lacking in all his opponents, with the occasional exception of Sanders. Here's how the least delicate of men feigned shock over a protester's obscene gesture: "He was sticking a certain finger up in the air, and that is a terrible thing to do."
The only place to defeat Trump is at the polls. Invading his show only widens his stage. The fuming disrupter rapidly becomes Trump's straight man (or woman). When it comes to showmanship, Trump has everyone else outgunned, and everyone else ought to have figured that out by now.
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Photo credit: Marc Nozell