The Lurking Menace of a Trump Rally

An undercurrent of violence courses through Trump’s events and speeches. In North Carolina, it erupted into the open.

Donald Trump watches as a protester is removed from the Crown Coliseum in Fayetteville, N.C. (Jonathan Drake / Reuters)

FAYETTEVILLE, N.C.—It only took five minutes from the time he began. Donald Trump was in the middle of a riff about “Lyin’ Ted Cruz” when a protester stood up.

“So early,” Trump said. “Get ’em out.”

The Republican frontrunner made it through just four more sentences before the next one stood up. “Hello! Go home to mom.”

That’s how it went through Trump’s rally in this military town, home to Fort Bragg, on Wednesday. At least 18 times during Trump’s speech, police came and plucked people out of the crowd, each time creating a large disturbance. The frequent disruptions added to an already charged atmosphere at the Crown Coliseum. In several recent nationally televised appearances at his resorts following election wins, Trump has seemed subdued—even “low energy,” to borrow an epithet. The AP argues he’s moderating into a general-election candidate. But there was little of that on display Wednesday.

Just below the surface of a Trump rally runs an undercurrent of violence. There are few overt threats. But there are thousands of people who are deeply angry at the state of the nation, whose anger is being intensified by the speaker on stage.

The many protesters Wednesday provided targets for that anger. As Trump talked, a murmur would rise somewhere in the arena. A bunch of blue shirts (Fayetteville police) and gray shirts (Cumberland County sheriff’s deputies) would run toward its source. Somewhere, a young person would be standing, perhaps holding a sign. People around them would rip the sign out of her hands and tear it up. The cops would yank the protester out. Trump had a punchline for every one. “You see what he’s got written on his very dirty undershirt? ‘Love is the answer,’” he said. “I wonder who makes love ...” He trailed off.

The police seem eager to remove even protesters whose presence is barely registering. Many of them are silent and out of the way; Trump and his security could easily just ignore them. But the extractions seem to serve the interests of all involved. Since posturing, rather than policy, is the point of Trump’s stump speech, he doesn’t mind turning his attention to protesters. The baying crowds love the chance to boo, and to chant “U-S-A!” as they’re taken out. The protesters want the attention. The press wants the photos.

Donovan Williams (David A. Graham / The Atlantic)

Before the rally, I spotted a young man named Donovan Williams just behind the press area wearing a shirt that said “IDK NOT TRUMP THO 2016.” Though people jeered and held up signs when I took a picture, there seemed to be no serious tension. Then security suddenly came and took him away. A little while later, he was back, but when he stood up and dabbed later, police came and took him out again.

Trump even complained that the protests weren’t larger and more disruptive. “It’s always like one person,” he said. “Can’t we have a little more action than this?”

Trump encourages the crowd to vent its fury at the protesters. “See, in the good old days this didn’t use to happen, because they used to treat them very rough,” he said. “We’ve become very weak.” At least one supporter felt the same way: Videos shot at the event showed a man punching a protester as he was removed. The puncher has been charged with assault.

Security removes Williams. (David A. Graham / The Atlantic)

The ejections offer a chance for Trump to praise the police, too—siding with the law-and-order crowd in the era of Black Lives Matter and police-reform efforts. “Do we love our police? Our police are great,” he said, as the first protesters was removed. He came back to the theme later. “Those are the most gentle protesters I’ve ever seen!” he said. “The police went for her and she started running out of the building. The police never touched her, and tomorrow she’s suing the police for police brutality.” As he spoke, she was being led out with a police officer holding each arm.

A few weeks ago, a Guardian journalist wrote, “Attending a Trump rally is a nervy thing for a journalist … It is quite a feeling to be among a crowd of thousands who would gladly tear you to pieces, given the right circumstances.” That’s not my impression. Yes, Trump always takes time to bash the media; in Fayetteville, he mocked photographers every time they swung their lenses around to snap the latest protester removal. Several attendees gently scolded me over what they see as unfair coverage. But suggesting many of them wish to engage in direct violence against reporters gives them too little credit. They’re perfectly able to distinguish between an individual reporter and the press they loathe as a whole. Two recent moments of violence against journalists at Trump events have come at the hands of a Secret Service agent and Trump’s campaign manager, not attendees.

What is disturbing about Trump’s handling of the media at an event like this is that he knows he’s playing a game—but doesn’t tell the crowd. Long before he decided to become a politician, Trump was a master of media. Sure, he’d call up a reporter who wrote something he didn’t like and berate him, but he was also eager to comment—anytime, anywhere. I talked to Trump for several stories in his pre-presidential days, and he was always quick to get on the phone, far faster than any other CEO of his profile and net worth. Trump is well aware of how essential media attention has been to his run, but when he complains that the press is being unfair, or not saying how large his rallies are—a patently bogus claim—his supporters believe it, and are upset on his behalf. (For the record: Trump claimed there were 13 or 14,000 people, but the coliseum’s capacity is about 11,000. It was mostly full.)

There’s plenty of implicit violence in Trump’s speeches, too. Most notable is his will-we-won’t-we flirtation with war crimes.

“We have to stay within the laws,” he complained about rules of engagement for the military. “They don’t have laws. Do you think ISIS has laws? ...Do you think they sit back and talk about the laws?” (That’s a pretty funny thing to say about an obsessively textual movement.) “Do you think they sit back and talk about, well, waterboarding may be a little tough? If we’re going to win these things, we’ve got to win them on a much more level playing field.”

Was that an endorsement of torture, of discarding international laws on war? It sounded like it was. But a little while later Trump returned to the theme. “We fight gentle wars. We stay within the boundaries of the law! We’re going to stay, of course we’re going to stay within the law,” he said, and yet, “We have to do what we have to do.” If you wanted to read that as a vow to follow laws, however reluctantly, you could, but wouldn’t be the most straightforward interpretation, and Trump draped each pronunciation of “laws” in heavy sarcasm.

The protests gave form to a stump speech that otherwise would have none. His rambling often seemed just like a way to kill time before the next protester popped up. The spine of his comments was an extended case for tariffs, centered around Carrier, the air-conditioner company, closing an Indiana factory and moving 1,400 jobs to Mexico. The case has become a staple of Trump’s stump speeches recently. Impressively, Trump managed to tell the whole story of the Carrier plant in just 30 minutes, even as he was interrupted by roughly a dozen protesters and his own digressions on Jeb Bush; Ted Cruz; evangelical voters (“My people!”); Marco Rubio’s pathos; Hillary Clinton’s dishonesty; his wife; the size of his crowds; media duplicity; and his friend Howard in Palm Beach who wants to give him $10 million. (I’m sure I missed a few topics.)

In the end, though, the Carrier story was pretty simple: Trump said he would call Carrier’s CEO up on day one and tell him that every unit the company sent to the U.S. would be slapped with a 35 percent tariff. His rivals couldn’t do that because they were bought off by campaign donations, he added. Within 24 hours, Trump was certain the CEO would call back and announce the company would return to the U.S. Never mind establishment conservatives who say protectionism is wrong. (“They say it’s not ‘pure’ conservative. I may agree, I may not agree. What it’s called is smart business.”) Never mind the fact that the president cannot unilaterally impose tariffs, as reporters have been noting for months. The crowd loved it. Policy is beside the point: Trump’s fans love his brash manner of speaking, which they call telling it like it is—even in cases like the tariffs, where Trump is telling it like it could never be.

He worked to connect with the crowd, sprinkling his speech with mentions of the military, and talking about his hotel at Lake Norman, all the way across the state near Charlotte.

But at times, he seemed clueless about North Carolina. He guessed there was probably early voting, but had to have it confirmed by shouts from the audience. Early in his speech, listing off a string of recent primary victories, Trump mentioned “Massachusetts, home of Tom Brady.” But North Carolina is Cam Newton country, and many people booed. Trump kept rolling: “Tom Brady likes me and I like Tom Brady. Massachusetts, you can’t do better than Tom Brady.” There were more boos.

Trump also told the story of asking voters to take a pledge to vote for him—a gesture he says the media willfully misinterpreted as a Nazi salute. “I probably won’t ask you to pledge that you’ll vote for me, because they’ll say it was a horrible thing,” he said. There were some cheers. “You wanna do it?” he asked, and proceeded, having gotten all the permission he needed for his daring contravention of political correctness. But as I looked around the bowl, not many people were raising their hands. They seemed to know better.

It’s no novel claim to say that racial and ethnic resentment have played a central role in the Trump campaign. But talking to supporters in the Crown Coliseum produced two striking, and contradictory, impressions. First, there were a lot of racist comments. One man referred, without a second thought, to the executive mansion as “the Black House.” A woman spoke at length about her distaste for Muslims. A man complained about Chinese and Indian doctors at Veterans Affairs hospitals.

Yet the crowd also included the largest number of minority supporters I’ve seen at a Republican campaign event this year. John Fowler, an African American Vietnam vet, was there with a friend, both wearing black-and-gold “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN” caps, complete with the gold scrambled eggs on their brims that adorn naval officers’ visors.

“Everyone else is a puppet. He says what he wants to say,” he said of Trump. “Everyone else is controlled by political correctness.” Fowler was not. “I got no problem with a Muslim, but you gotta screen these people,” he said. Fowler was unhappy about Muslims in the U.S. who wore veils or objected to the presence of pork in meals. “If that’s a problem, go back to where you’re from,” he said. Fowler was particularly hopeful that Trump would reform the VA, with which he’d had many bad experiences. “I go in at 11 and I’m seen at 3:30. What kind of shit is that?”

Most of the attendees at a Trump rally are enthusiastic fans, but at least some are there for the spectacle. “I want to see it for myself,” said Carl Pringle, who was wearing a shirt with Martin Luther King Jr. on it. “You see a rally on TV, you this stuff they put on, but you can’t believe everything you see.” I asked if he was a Trump supporter. He smiled tightly and shook his head no.

Outside after the rally, I chatted with Sandra Bell, another black Trump backer. She was wearing a t-shirt that read “I would rather apologize later than ask for permission now,” and she said that slogan represented Trump as well. “He speaks his mind! I don’t care what anybody says, and neither does he,” he said. “Hillary lies. Obama lies,” she said. About what? “He lied about Obamacare. I do taxes, and a lot of my customers got hurt on their taxes by Obamacare.

But the uncomfortable racial dynamic was on display as I chatted with Bell. Outside the arena, a large group of protesters had gathered—mostly young, and largely black—holding anti-Trump signs. As attendees, mostly white, streamed out of the rally, they gathered around the protesters, with a mix of curiosity and menace. Some looked like they just wanted to take a look, while others shouted at the demonstrators or chanted. I ran into Donovan Williams, the young man in the “IDK NOT TRUMP THO” shirt who’d been ejected earlier. What had happened? He said they’d just tossed him out, though he complained police had twisted his arm painfully and that he’d done nothing wrong. As he watched, a couple children taunted him with Trump signs. He snatched the sign from the hand of a teenage boy and ripped it apart. Suddenly, the boy’s mother and another woman jumped in. It looked like a fistfight was about to break out, but a Fayetteville cop quickly intervened and sent the women away.

“I wanted to see what this is about,” Williams said. “They showed me exactly what this is about.” Then he walked back into the fray.