When I read about the Chicago protesters last week cheering after Donald Trump canceled his campaign rally as a result of their efforts, I knew a lot of anti-Trump Democrats were also happy. But my first reaction? “Ouch.”
As these protests against Trump inevitably continue, I believe those of us who are progressives and are offended by the GOP front-runner’s bigoted and hateful language should worry about conduct that ends up thwarting First Amendment rights — his as well as that of his audiences. I especially fear that attempts to disrupt or shut down Trump’s rallies could end up achieving the near impossible: making Trump look sympathetic.
There is no doubt that Trump has often condoned, even encouraged, the violence exhibited by some of the thugs who attend his rallies. Just this pastSunday, on “Meet the Press,” he actually defended the sucker punch thrown by one of his supporters to the face of a protester who was being escorted out of the rally. He said that he might pay for the puncher’s legal fees, recalling fondly the days when a protester would be “carried out on a stretcher” and saying he’d “like to punch him in the face.” Just recently he urged his supporters to raise their right hands and “solemnly swear” to vote for him. When people made the inevitable comparison to Hitler’s “Sieg Heil” salute, he said that was “ridiculous” and it was all in “fun.”
This past Sunday, Trump’s remaining three opponents on the Republican side, while condemning the conduct of any protesters who would try to break up the Trump rally, all repudiated the billionaire’s words condoning this violence. Ted Cruz said the responsibility for the violence “starts at the top.” Marco Rubio said that “all the gates of civility have been blown apart by Trump,” adding that it is getting harder to stick to his pledge to support Trump if he wins the nomination. John Kasich said that Trump “has created a toxic environment.”
I am glad they finally challenged his reckless language encouraging violence. But where are all the other elected leaders of the Republican Party in Congress, in the state houses, in the national party? Why do they remain silent, as many did when Trump first disparaged a war hero, Arizona Sen. John McCain, as being weak for getting caught as a prisoner of war in Vietnam? Or when he used the stereotypical words of a classic bigot in saying all Mexicans crossing our border are “rapists” and criminals? How about when he says all foreign Muslims are so dangerous he would ban them all, based solely on their religion, from coming to the United States, or when he questions the patriotism — and just a few years ago, the citizenship — of President Obama?
Trump has crossed the line dividing civilized people from non-civilized people, using reckless words that condone and encourage violence against those who oppose him; misogynistic words attacking Megyn Kelly and other women; vitriol when he mocks and insults his fellow Republican presidential candidates and anyone else who challenges him. Hasn’t the time come for all thoughtful Republicans to say one word, publicly?
As for our side, progressive and mainstream Democrats, we too have a responsibility.
We must be careful not to create sympathy for Trump by acting as if the First Amendment should be suspended when it comes to him and his supporters, regardless of how repulsive their words and actions are.
Of course I support people going to Trump rallies with signs that challenge him peacefully. But let’s avoid any organized effort to prevent him from speaking. And for goodness sake, let’s not cheer when we hear that his rally has been canceled because of disruptive protests.
In fact, our attitude should be: The more people hear him, the better it is.
The more people hear him, the greater will be the margin of his defeat in the general election, when America will repudiate him and all he stands for by a historic landslide margin so large that he and the likes of him will not return again to run for president for generations to come.
Lanny Davis served as special counsel to former President Clinton and is principal in the Washington, D.C. law firm of Lanny J. Davis & Associates, and Executive Vice President of the strategic communications firm, LEVICK. He is the author of a recently published book, Crisis Tales: Five Rules for Coping with Crises in Business, Politics, and Life (Threshold Editions/Simon and Schuster).