Cleveland, Ohio – Donald Trump’s supporters know they’re in the spotlight.
“Don’t scream at protestors, sing!” read a flyer passed out to the thousands of Trump fans waiting for his rally at the I-X Center on Saturday. The sheets included lyrics to “America the Beautiful.” It didn’t take – the crowd booed the inevitable interruptions while Trump told security to “get them the hell out.”
The event went more smoothly than Trump’s morning event in Dayton, Ohio, however, when Secret Service agents leapt to protect Trump as a man rushed the stage.
“We want to be peaceful,” Michael Brigeman, a high school senior in an NRA shirt, said as he waited for the rally. “Then again, no one’s going to back down if someone starts something.”
Every one of Trump’s rivals across both parties this week have accused the candidate of encouraging violence at his rallies, an issue that came to a head after a heated standoff on Friday between supporters and left-wing protesters that forced him to cancel a speech in Chicago. Trump has told crowds he’d like to punch protesters in the face, that he pines for the days when protesters would be ”carried out in a stretcher” and even offered to pay legal fees for anyone who would “knock the crap” out of protesters if they threw tomatoes at him.
The fans that waited hours in line for his afternoon rally in Cleveland Saturday weren’t happy with the recent news out of Chicago. But they argued that it was unfair to blame Trump even as some admitted they’d prefer he dial back his rhetoric.
Mike Bokulich, a studiously polite 73-year-old veteran holding a sign outside of the rally, attributed the Chicago fiasco to the city’s history as a hotbed of progressive activism. He believed the same confrontations would have broken out if any other Republican held a major event at a college campus there.
“Let them go to Chicago and see what happens,” Bokulich said. “This has been going on for years.”
Jeff Marshaus, a 53-year-old truck driver wearing a plastic Trump sign, was upset with the coverage of individual Trump supporters, like the elderly man who was arrested after striking a protester on video this week.
“It’s thousands of people – he can’t control everyone,” Marshaus said.
Trump, on some level, is concerned about his image as well. Darrell Scott, the African-American pastor who introduced him on Saturday, used his speech to call attention to the supporters behind him holding an “American Sikhs for Trump” sign and an “American Muslims for Trump” sign. The event, as always, opened with a recorded message telling supporters not to harm protesters who “have taken advantage of Mr. Trump’s hospitality.”
Two Republicans, Sen. Marco Rubio and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, hinted on Saturday that they were reconsidering their pledges to support Trump as the GOP nominee in response to the chaos at his events. Rubio in particular sounded deeply shaken when addressing the topic.
“It’s called anarchy,” Rubio said. “And that’s what we’re careening towards.”
Audience members in Cleveland, however, were skeptical of the sincerity of Trump’s critics. Many are on guard for efforts by GOP leaders to wrest the nomination from Trump at the national convention and assume the latest criticism is yet another political ploy to drag him down.
“They’re losing, so they’re going to say whatever they think will help them,” Art Figureo, an electrician from Akron, said.
Most supporters who talked to MSNBC blamed the unrest in Chicago on supporters of Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders – “Bernie’s crowd,” as Trump sneered in his speech – and the Black Lives Matter movement, which frequently protests Trump events. But distrust of GOP leaders is so high that some Trump supporters volunteered that the protesters popping up at Trump’s rallies were Republican plants.
“I think it’s staged, 50-50 Democrats and Republicans,” Marshaus said. “They don’t want Trump, and they’re going for brokered convention.”
“I think [George] Soros is behind it and probably other Republicans, too,” Mary Jane Sobeski, 66, said.
Progressive activist groups, some who are supporting Bernie Sanders, say they organized the Chicago protests on social media.
The scene outside Saturday’s rally included a mix of smiling faces and vulgar signs that reflected the candidate’s personal style.
“Get your ‘Hillary sucks, but not like Monica’ shirts!” one vendor shouted outside with the cadence used to sell a stadium brat. “‘Trump that bitch’ on the back, get your shirts!”
“Donald F—ing Trump!” another shouted a few feet away. “Get your ‘Donald F—ing Trump!’”
“Already got mine!” a 20-something supporter with wraparound shades and a bright white “Donald F—ing Trump” shirt said.
As is the case with Trump’s speeches, things got angrier and darker at times, too. An irate Trump supporter in camouflage gear screamed “go back to Africa” at a Black Lives Matter protester outside the venue.
Not everyone is crazy about the nastiest lines in Trump speeches, though. It’s actually fairly common to hear Trump fans who love his message on trade and immigration, love that he sticks it to political correctness, but still wish he were a touch milder.
“I wish I was his consultant sometimes after debates, but people admire that he’s not PC,” Bokulich told MSNBC. “So he’s not presidential. Obama was presidential, and look where it got us.”
“He gets a little crazy sometimes – it’s a little scary,” Michelle Weber, a 53-year-old medical administrator, admitted while adding she didn’t blame Trump for violence.
Some supporters said they regard Trump’s baiting as part of an election season act that no one should take too seriously. In the White House, they argued, things would be different.
“You know how Ben Carson said there were ‘two Trumps?’” Frederick James, a retired military police officer who served in three wars, said. “There’s the serious side and the joking side.”
Joe, a young Trump volunteer working the rally who asked that his last name not be printed, echoed the sentiment.
“Maybe he needs to tone it down, but it is part of his gimmick,” he said. “When he’s in office this will die down, but he’s doing what he needs to do to get elected.”
The regular outrageous moments, he said, are “what sets him apart from the other candidates” and generate necessary media attention. “He’s not a career politician – no one would have paid attention otherwise.”
Randall Malus, a 33-year-old writer in a three-piece suit and a “Finally, someone with balls” pin, told MSNBC that the uncomfortable scenes now playing out in the news were destined to occur whether or not Trump arrived on the scene.
“There’s a general undercurrent of anger and divisiveness brought on by economic inequality,” he said. “Historically, when the middle class is strong, there is much less anger.”