Is Donald Trump responsible for the fistfights and scuffling that have broken out at some of his rallies?
That seems to be the main question that the media are asking.
What’s overshadowed, and sometimes ignored, is the role of protestors who are engaged in organized attempts to disrupt these rallies.
We saw that again yesterday in North Carolina, when a group of demonstrators kept screaming in an attempt to shout down Trump, until they were removed.
There are two sides to this debate—but the harsh spotlight is mainly on Trump.
The billionaire yesterday declared that there is “no violence” at his rallies, that these gatherings are “love fests.” Clearly there have been violent outbreaks.
And it can certainly be argued that Trump kept his foot on the gas pedal by saying he’d like to punch one protestor in the face, or that he’d pay the legal fees of supporters fighting back.
But what about the role of protestors who use Facebook to organize the troops for the express purpose of disrupting a presidential candidate’s event?
When MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow says she’s practically concluded that Trump wanted the confrontation in Chicago, where he canceled the rally, it’s clear that some in the media are making this all about the candidate and not those who would silence him.
Imagine how different the coverage might be if protestors were shouting down Hillary Clinton, as they briefly did to Bernie Sanders earlier in the season.
Everyone has the right to peacefully demonstration, something that’s deeply embedded in our country’s DNA. But nobody has the right to stop someone else from speaking. That is an assault on free speech—and one that’s been too prevalent on college campuses in recent years, where some liberals have tried to block speakers whose views they don’t like.
In the short term, this probably helps Trump in the Republican primaries, where voters will see him taking on mostly minority protestors who they don’t have much sympathy for. The danger in the long run is that the outbreaks of violence will come to be seen as a metaphor for a campaign that critics will say is tearing the country apart.
Joe Scarborough, in his Washington Post column, continues his turn against Trump, insisting that “a political campaign whose security has been so stifling as to draw angry comparisons to fascist regimes would plan a key rally for Trump in the middle of a racially diverse urban campus. The fact that this campus sits in the middle of a city that is so Democratic that it has not elected a Republican mayor since before Franklin Roosevelt was sworn in as president makes the venue’s selection even more bizarre.”
I have to disagree on that point. Why shouldn’t a presidential candidate—especially one who hopes to attract Democratic votes in the fall--be able to campaign anywhere he wants?
National Review, which detests Trump and is backing Ted Cruz, faults the protestors, but adds this:
“Trump — Saddam Hussein to the ayatollahs of political correctness on the other side — is of course far from blameless in all this. That is not to say that Trump’s irresponsible, wild-eyed, and meat-headed rhetoric, which has included explicit calls for violence against his critics, is responsible for having provoked the protests. Rather, Trump’s rhetoric has been unworthy of a presidential candidate — and unworthy of an American — in and of itself.”
On the liberal side, Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo says “it is not that Trump can't control the beast he's unleashed. He cannot control himself because the same psychodrama and politics of resentment that is playing out among his followers is playing out within himself. Trump can pivot to the general all he wants. But the primaries will follow him there. Indeed, he will bring them.”
And at the Huffington Post, which hates Trump with a passion, Howard Fineman invokes the violence and division of 1968:
“Like the late George Wallace, Trump exudes a sneering hatred for political establishments and blames the ills of the county on those whose race, faith or origin makes them somehow ‘un-American.’
“Wallace softened somewhat in later years, but Trump, at 69, shows no signs of doing so. Indeed, he is doubling down on his willingness to allow verbal and even physical antagonism in his name and at his campaign rallies.”
Trump speaks openly about tapping into the anger of Americans who are fed up with the political establishment, and that has fueled his rise. Now his challenge is to deal with the very visible backlash to that anger.
Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.