We all saw this coming. Any reporter who has covered Donald Trump rallies since the summer has known for some time that violence on an important scale was inevitable.
The topic has come up often in conversations with other journalists. “Something really bad’s going happen,” a reporter said to me at an event for Marco Rubio in Georgia recently. I agreed, but assumed the initial violence would be against the media.
A recurring bit at Trump rallies begins with Trump pointing to the press section and unleashing a tirade. “Reporters, they’re the most dishonest people. They’re horrible people,” he says, often singling out a female reporter by name. “The media – they never show my crowds! They don’t want the world to see my crowds!”
At a rally in Grand Rapids, Mich., Trump said he wouldn’t kill reporters, but did have to think about it. “I hate some of these people, I hate ’em,” Trump said. “I would never kill them. I would never do that.” Then he waited a beat. “Uh, let’s see, uh? No, I would never do that.” The crowd loved it.
With that kind of invective coming from the podium, I wasn’t at all surprised when a photographer from TIME was grabbed by the throat and thrown to the ground by a security guard at a Trump event in Virginia. Or when, days before that, NBC’s Katy Tur, who covers the Trump campaign exclusively, tweeted about threats coming from a crowd where she was working. “Trump trashes press. Crowd jeers. Guy by press ‘pen’ looks at us & screams, “You’re a bitch!”
Last week, a reporter from Breitbart News was reportedly grabbed and nearly thrown to the ground by Trump’s campaign manager. The response from the Trump campaign has been vehement denials, and a full-scale character assassination against the reporter, calling her “delusional” and accusing her of being a serial attention seeker. The reporter, Michelle Fields, said it’s been the worst experience of her life other than her father’s death.
The atmosphere in and around Trump events — including rolling rounds of protests met by an increasingly explosive responses from Trump supporters — is the reason some reporters now travel with their own security detail when they cover Trump, a precaution typically reserved for war zones. It’s also the reason I never sit in the “press pen” at a Donald Trump rally. I walk past the gated enclosure in the middle of the arena where reporters work and stand or sit off to the side. If something gets out of hand during the event, I want to be able to move on my own. I also don’t want to be enclosed in a small group of people, among thousands, whom Trump evaluates for murder, even in jest.
The running narrative about why violence would break out at a Trump event, especially from the candidate himself, is that his voters are angry and they deserve to be. People are getting screwed and they’re not going to take it anymore.
But in my experience covering his events, most of the people in the crowd are friendly. They are happy to talk to a reporter. Some even get a kick out of it. Many say they don’t agree with the worst of what Trump says, but support his willingness to say it. More than a few add that they believe his heart is kinder than his words: “He didn’t really mean it that way.”
Invariably, the person at any Trump event most likely to issue threats, belittle people, condone violence and encourage others to do the same is Donald Trump himself. The most dangerous person at any Trump event is Donald Trump. Chicago was only a matter of time.
In the days following the violence at his rally there, Trump has not only taken no responsibility for his part in for the escalating tensions, but has praised the people who participated in it.
“What happened yesterday was incredible,” he told his rally in Ohio Saturday. “My people are great.” Instead of asking his supporters not to hurt protesters in the future, he told them they had no choice but to do the opposite: “When they have organized, professionally staged wise guys, we’ve got to fight back!”
I actually believe many of the people in Trump’s rallies are great. I know many Trump supporters and understand the journey they’ve taken to get where they are. But the man they’re following is falling shorter every day of what any voter, or any nation, deserves in a leader.
Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for the Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter at @1PatriciaMurphy.
Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone.