Commentary

Trump’s Free Speech Wrecking Crews

On March 14, during a speech at Lenoir-Rhyne University in Hickory, North Carolina, Donald Trump described his rallies as peaceful, positive gatherings of like-minded people who only want to make America great again.

“It’s a love fest. These are love fests,” Trump told the crowd, according to an account in The Washington Post. “And every once in a while … somebody will stand up and they’ll say something. … It’s a little disruption, but there’s no violence. There’s none whatsoever.”

Trump was defending his campaign against criticism that his security staff and supporters have responded to these “little disruptions” with violent attacks, largely directed at minorities. At the same time, Trump has created a false narrative that he has been the victim of an organized effort to deprive him of free speech by protesters who aggressively disrupt his events.

But a thorough review of the video evidence tells a different story. Not a single video has surfaced of anyone initiating violence against Trump’s security staff or supporters in the months prior to the cancellation of his March 11 rally at the University of Illinois in Chicago. Instead, the videos taken at Trump’s rallies from last fall through early March show a pattern of violent assaults and vicious racist invective directed at peaceful demonstrators. These unrestrained attacks are what ultimately led to the organized anti-Trump protest in Chicago.

The incidents leading up to that canceled speech involved single individuals or small groups who stood silently with signs in mute opposition to Trump. The few vocal dissidents could barely make themselves heard in the large venues filled with thousands of Trump supporters.

In each of these instances, Trump could have easily continued his speech without interruption as the protesters were escorted from the venue. Instead, Trump has used these incidents like props in a perverse threepenny opera.

Trump has made a deliberate point of stopping to narrate the expulsions, whipping the crowd into a frenzy by singling out the protesters for abuse and ridicule, while suggesting that they should be treated roughly. He has fed these people to the angry crowds like a zookeeper feeds red meat to hungry hyenas.

What has Trump’s response been to the hateful intolerance of his defenders? Denial and disingenuous equivocation, as was the case when he was pressed to denounce the support of David Duke and the KKK.

Trump and his spokespeople have repeatedly claimed he does not condone violence. But he also does not condemn it. Instead, he justifies it. As he did in the case of 78-year-old John McGraw, who was charged after his violent assault of Rakeem Jones, a black protester being led out of the arena by police during a Trump event in Fayetteville, North Carolina.

The day after the unprovoked assault, a video of McGraw surfaced in which he threatened, “The next time we see him, we might have to kill him.” Trump’s response? On March 13, he told Chuck Todd on Meet the Press that McGraw was just someone who “loves this country” and “wants to see America made great again.” Trump announced that he had instructed his people to look into paying McGraw’s legal fees.

If we accept, for the sake of argument, that Trump is not a bigot, what explains his tolerance of violent racists?

A Feb. 23 New York Times analysis, based on a series of polls conducted in primary states from December through February, concluded that Trump’s early success was built on a core group of steadfast supporters who hold extremely racist views.

For example, an Economist magazine/YouGov national poll conducted in January revealed that almost 20 percent of Trump’s supporters believe that Abraham Lincoln made a mistake by freeing the slaves.

Trump’s remarkable success may be attributed to this core of extremists who gave him the margins of victory necessary to prevail in the early multi-candidate primary elections. And Trump knows it. Which is why his failure to properly respond to their racist invective and violent quashing of dissent now threatens to fracture the party of Lincoln.

Nat Hentoff is a nationally renowned authority on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights. He is a member of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and the Cato Institute, where he is a senior fellow. Nick Hentoff is a criminal defense and civil liberties attorney in New York City.