Back in August, Donald Trump had strong words for Bernie Sanders after a Black Lives Matter protest interrupted a Sanders rally. Trump said, “I would never give up my microphone. I thought that was disgusting.” He went on to say, “That will never happen with me…I don’t know if I’ll do the fighting myself, or if other people will, but that was a disgrace. I felt badly for him, but it showed that he’s weak.”
On Friday night, Trump had the chance to show how he would react to a Black Lives Matter protest. He tucked his tail between his legs and scurried back to his jet. At least Sanders had stayed on the stage.
In the wake of the protest at Trump’s arena event, many on the Right have been quick to defend Trump as some kind of victim. This is spurious nonsense of the worst kind. Trump picked a fight, the fight came to him, and he cowered. It was a telling moment in his campaign. For a few fraught and frightening minutes liberal protesters succeeded in doing what conservatives have failed to do. They shut Donald Trump up.
For all his big talk, when the protests came he folded his tent and went home. These were chickens coming home to roost for him. For months we have seen how Trump deals with individual protesters. While most politicians politely listen to protestors and then respond, usually with a preface about how the right to protest is uniquely American, Trump took a different approach. He said “get ‘em out.” He said that in the good old days those kind of people got “roughed up.” He said he would pay the legal fees of his supporters who committed acts of violence.
The result of this bravado has indeed been violence. Last week, a Trump supporter sucker-punched a black protester as police led him peacefully out of the arena. Is there any doubt that the man who threw that punch (who has since been arrested) thought he was doing Trump’s bidding? Wasn’t he doing exactly what that sneering and snarling coward, protected by his Secret Service detail, had urged him to do? Trump is apparently looking into paying his thug’s legal fees. We’ll see if he keeps his word on that.
Trump’s Free Speech Was Not Violated
Free speech is a competition. While we do not have the right to silence anybody, we do have the right to speak more loudly and with greater moral authority than they do. Trump advertised a rally with tens of thousands of tickets available. Nowhere in the online form to buy tickets did it say attendees must respect Trump or quietly listen to him. In fact, at an arena rally for Trump I attended in New Hampshire, when a woman yelled out “Ted Cruz is a pussy,” she was not removed. Instead, the candidate trumpeted her viewpoint.
Trump’s spokesman took the stage Friday night to announce that, after consultation with authorities, Trump had cancelled his speech. The spokesman was not shouted down or assaulted. In fact, he delivered his message to a relatively quiet hall that only reacted loudly to the news that Trump would not appear. Chicago police have since said they did not advise Trump to cancel.
The spokesman’s appearance shows quite plainly that Trump could have appeared on that stage. He could have done what a leader does, and talked to the people. He could have taken the opportunity to show how, as he claims, he can unite the country and make it great again. But he didn’t. He cancelled the event rather than appear in front of people who were not committed acolytes.
Nobody violated Trump’s right to free speech. Those protesters have the same right, and they didn’t have access to the arena’s sound system. Free speech is a competition; it’s a marketplace of ideas. Trump took his microphone and went home. Unlike Sanders, he couldn’t take the heat. His rights weren’t violated, his ego was. But that’s how it goes. Welcome to the big leagues, Mr. Trump.
Protests Aim to Be Disruptive
The whole point of protests is to be disruptive. Conservatives believe that their forms of protest—Tea Party rallies, for example—are less disruptive than those of their liberal counterparts. This is probably true, but disruption is in the eye of the beholder. A pro-life protest outside an abortion clinic is viewed by many as disruptive. Many view as disruptive Rep. Joe Wilson yelling “You lie” during the State of the Union address.
Protesters of every political stripe make calculated choices about how much disruption helps their visibility and how much it hurts their cause. When colonists dumped a fortune in tea into Boston Harbor, they knew they were raising the stakes.
What happened on Friday night was much more restrained than the Boston Tea Party. But it served its purpose. Would I prefer that the protesters wore suits and quietly took the slings and arrows of Trump supporters’ ire in a dignified display of defiance? Sure. But they didn’t. It’s not 1963. Today’s Jackie Robinsons will no longer be the quiet, long-suffering Negro of black and white newsreels, nor should they be.
The Opportunity for Cruz
So how should Trump’s Republican opponents seize upon this opportunity? So far, they have handled it the right way. All three have condemned Trump’s incendiary language and correctly asserted that he has reaped what he sowed. They have made plain that anger is not and must not be the driving principle of American democracy.
We Americans smile, we persevere, we toil together and learn from each other. Our political emotions, although often irrationally ruled by fear, always return to love. What does Donald Trump love other than Donald Trump?
Ted Cruz must ask America if this is the next four years they want. Do they want constant race riots and racial resentment? Do they want hatred towards illegal immigrants? Do they want the call to cowardly violence that has morally bankrupted so many societies?
Or can Cruz call for a concerted effort to heal our divisions? Can Cruz calmly, despite his dull awkwardness, offer us a different way forward? Trump is as divisive a political force as this country has ever seen. Cruz, the hated senator, has the chance to be something else. He should take it, and prove he is the short-haired, boring guy who can set America back at ease.
I live in New York City. We don’t vote for a while. Trump hasn’t done an arena show here yet. Conservative friends of mine have already told me they will be protesting him when he does. They asked me to join them. I won’t be doing it.
But as I watch them raise their voices in opposition to his, I will be watching the best of America. This America challenges you and makes you fight for your views and values. That America confronted Donald Trump on Friday night. He had neither the head nor the heart to withstand the strong scrutiny of American democracy. And I thank Chicago’s protestors for making that clear.