Trump Can't Tell the Truth About Violence at His Rallies

The Republican frontrunner fancies himself a bold truthteller, but he acts more like a peddler of escapist fantasies.

Chris Keane / Reuters

Donald Trump’s supporters often laud him for “telling it like it is,” or for his willingness to challenge political correctness. But the many stories Trump has told about violence at his rallies shows his tendency to tell it like he wishes it would be, in a way that is factually—to say nothing of politically—incorrect.

On Friday night, Trump postponed his rally in Chicago, after thousands of protestors showed up and threatened to take over the event; fistfights broke out on the floor of an arena at the University of Illinois at Chicago. In a statement, Trump said he’d decided to call off the event after consulting with law enforcement. But the Chicago Police Department said that neither it nor the UIC police had been involved in any conversation, and CPD insisted it could handle the situation. There are reasons to doubt that CPD was in control—there were those fistfights, of course—but the statement raised questions about Trump’s veracity.

Those questions grew louder when it happened again on Sunday, after a Trump rally in Kansas City.* He said local police had asked him to cancel it out of safety concerns. Once again, local authorities publicly disputed his account:

On Saturday, in Dayton, Ohio, a young man rushed the stage while Trump was speaking. Secret Service agents had to hustle to get in position around Trump. Trump promptly shared a video of the stagerusher, Thomas DiMassimo, set to jihadi music:

The video was a hoax. Pressed by Chuck Todd about passing along the video, Trump shrugged: “All I know is what's on the Internet.”

Last week, Trump and his campaign manager Corey Lewandowski repeatedly denied that Lewandowski had grabbed Breitbart reporter Michelle Fields, even as more and more evidence accumulated that appeared to substantiate Fields’s allegations.

On Monday, Trump claimed there’s no violence at his events. “The press is now calling, they’re saying, ‘Oh but there’s such violence.’ There’s no violence,” Trump said, then added, paradoxically, “You know how many people have been hurt at our rallies? I think like, basically none, other than I guess maybe somebody got hit once or something. But there’s no violence.” He has also said he did nothing to encourage violence against protestors.

Those are both ridiculous ideas. Even leaving aside the Fields case, there’s the peaceful protester sucker-punched by an attendee in Fayetteville, North Carolina. There’s the Time photographer in an altercation with a Secret Service agent. There was the Black Lives Matter protestor attacked in November. There were the Hispanic protesters hit in October. And then there are Trump’s many statements encouraging violence against protesters, more and less obliquely, collected by Dara Lind. As protestors were escorted out in Fayetteville, for example, Trump said, “See, in the good old days this didn’t use to happen, because they used to treat them very rough. We’ve become very weak.” Meanwhile, there were near-fistfights outside. (A spokesman for the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Department said Monday that contrary to reports, they did not plan to charge Trump with inciting a riot. “If we were going to do it, I think we would have done it by now. We didn’t hesitate to charge Mr. [John] McGraw,” the man who sucker-punched a protestor, said Sergeant Sean Swain.)

The string of incidents, especially since the Chicago debacle, have sparked a fresh round of soul-searching and doom-saying from pundits. They are right to speak out, for any number of reasons. Outbreaks of violence like this at political rallies are unhealthy and dangerous.

But it also ought to go without saying that this elite disapprobation won’t do anything to dissuade most Trump supporters—who are often backing him because of their own revulsion at those same elites in the first place. Preliminary poll results suggest Trump backers aren’t holding any of this against Trump.

One possibility is to read the protests as a threat to the First Amendment: Hordes of protesters showing up in Chicago, and effectively preventing the exercise of speech. Under this theory, it's just another symptom of the political correctness Trump is fighting.

But it’s easier just to pretend that the protestors are violent aggressors and have been all along. Trump has argued, in the absence of evidence, that protesters have caused other violent incidents at past rallies. He’s claimed protesters are plants from the Bernie Sanders campaign, as though there’s no possibility of grassroots grievances against Trump. On Monday, one of Trump’s top surrogates also blamed saboteurs:

There are indications that Trump understands the danger this violence now poses to his political hopes, even if he was content to stoke it in the past. The campaign has taken to making announcements asking people not to touch protestors. But at the same time, the candidate continues to point a finger elsewhere.

If Trump’s campaign was actually built on uncomfortable truthtelling, his obvious dissembling and disregard for facts in these cases might be damaging. After months of violence at Trump rallies, and after he strategically stoked the anger, Trump now insists it’s someone else’s problem. But blaming outside provocateurs while refusing to acknowledge any internal flaws is in keeping with the Trump campaign. Trump’s candidacy is, like his famously over-the-top resorts, essentially an escapist exercise: It promises people who are angry about the state of the nation that there is a simple solution and they don’t have to change anything. The problem is always somewhere else, someone else.

* This post originally stated that the Kansas City rally was cancelled. We regret the error.