The increasingly violent nature of campaign events supporting Donald Trump, the current Republican presidential frontrunner, built to a crescendo Friday night as protesters in Chicago, Illinois came out in full force, prompting Trump to cancel the rally he had planned there. Trump was quick to decry the “thugs who shut down our First Amendment rights” and other figures on the right echoed that message.
Fox News host Megyn Kelly commented that “his First Amendment free speech rights have been shut down.” Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich tweeted that “the real American fascists stopped Trump rally tonight.” In a lengthy interview with Trump on Friday night, Kelly’s colleague Sean Hannity said that “violent agitators hijacked what was to be a peaceful campaign rally.”
“I don’t see any violence at Trump rallies,” Hannity continued. “Somehow people have been trying to flip this on you… as if you stating your political opinions is responsible for this.”
Trump responded: “I think this not a good group — really spiteful of First Amendment rights. If we ever did that to them it would be a national disgrace, a national story the likes of which you have never seen.”
Not only does this argument belie the foundation of the First Amendment — it protects the right to free speech; it does not protect you from protest and criticism — but it also wholly dismisses the role of Trump’s incendiary rhetoric toward protesters at his events in fostering the chaotic scene in Chicago. What’s more, if the goal is to silence Trump, this small effort on behalf of protesters to make their voices heard could hardly counteract the millions of dollars in free air time he’s been given dating back to last year.
The level of violence at Trump campaign events has only escalated over the past several months. Earlier this week, a young African American protester, Rakeem Jones, was sucker-punched at a Trump rally in North Carolina by an older white man. At the time, only Jones was restrained and removed from the venue; the other man was later charged with assault. A young black woman was attacked and shoved during a Trump rally in Kentucky earlier this month. A Puerto Rican teenager was roughed up at a Trump rally in Georgia last month.
Rather than seek to quell this disturbing trend, Trump has fueled it. At a press conference earlier in the day on Friday, he called the assault of protesters like Jones “very, very appropriate.” During Thursday night’s Republican debate, Trump defended his supporters and their “tremendous passion,” attributing their anger to “bad trade deals, higher taxes, loss of their jobs.”
Trump has encouraged his supporters to “knock the crap out of” protesters, offering to pay their legal fees. “I’d like to punch him in the face, I’ll tell you that,” he said of a protester being removed from a rally last month, much to the delight of the crowd.
And while the Republican frontrunner has sought to frame the protests in Chicago that prompted his decision to cancel his event as a trampling of free speech, those same protections don’t seem to apply to the people expressing their anger toward him. At a rally in St. Louis on Friday, he bemoaned the fact that there are no longer consequences for protesting. “There used to be consequences. There are none anymore,” Trump said. “These people are so bad for our country. You have no idea folks, you have no idea.”
MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow said this attempt “to gin up political violence for its electoral utility” sets up a dangerous precedent. The result is “that violence at these events, which may start organically, is in effect spot lit and encouraged to the point where it becomes something that is legitimately out of control of anyone,” she commented on Friday night. “And then the spectacle of political violence is itself seen as something that is a problem that needs to be solved by this strongman character who incited the initial event in the first place.”
Trump tweeted on Saturday that he’s moving forward with planned campaign stops in Ohio.