Boca Raton, Florida – It can get worse.
That’s the sinking feeling hanging over Donald Trump rallies amid mounting confrontations between supporters and protesters accompanied by ever-escalating rhetoric from the candidate himself.
“I am worried about it,” Jordan Vashey, a 25-year-old Republican voter visiting from New Jersey said before heading into Trump’s outdoor rally in Florida. “Something always seems to make the paper the next day and sometimes it’s violence.”
Vashey is undecided and likes some of Trump’s platform, such as his pledge to build a border wall and crack down on drug smugglers, but said he was concerned by his tone.
After serving two tours in Afghanistan with the Marines, he thought Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims entering the country distorted the “beautiful religion” he encountered abroad and heightened tensions.
“His directive appeals to me, but not his rhetoric,” Vashey said. “It’s too built up toward hatred.”
Decked out in wraparound shades and a worn baseball cap, 45-year-old Bill Scott said he registered Republican to vote for Trump this week because he’s “saying what all of us want to say.” He said supporters “have had enough” of protesters from the Black Lives Matter movement and other left-wing causes.
“We’re going to react how we react regardless of what Trump says,” he said. “Obama created this mess. I’ve seen people grab flags, throw punches they start trouble.”
Trump rallies have had a familiar, if deeply unsettling, rhythm up to this point: Cops and security would weed out suspected protesters before the event started. The individuals who made it in would interrupt the speech and then be escorted out while Trump fired up the crowd with taunts, jeers and sometimes a sneering, “don’t hurt them.” Hopefully, no one would get hurt.
That hope is dwindling. On Saturday, a protester charged Trump’s podium. On Friday, a Chicago rally was canceled amid clashes between protesters and Trump supporters. Last week, a protester was punched in North Carolina and Breitbart reporter Michelle Fields issued a criminal complaint against Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandoski for grabbing her. (Lewandoski denies the charge.)
Where it ends, no one can be sure. July’s Republican National Convention in Cleveland, which could feature a heated floor fight inside and tens of thousands of protestors outside, feels more and more like a ticking bomb waiting to go off.
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In the meantime, Trump is alternating between passing condemnations of violence paired with blatant celebrations of it. On Sunday, he said on NBC’s “Meet The Press” that he was considering paying legal bills for the 78-year-old supporter who was arrested for sucker-punching a black protester on camera. He tweeted that Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders, who Trump blames for the protestors at his rallies, needed to “be careful” or he’d send his supporters to disrupt his events. Some activist groups supporting Sanders participated in the Chicago protests, but Sanders has said his own campaign had nothing to do with them and called on Trump to condemn violence.
“[My] personality, eh, they don’t love it so much but that’s okay,” Trump told the crowd in Boca Raton on Sunday after arriving in a helicopter. “Who cares? Who the hell cares about that? We got to straighten out our country.”
Before his speech, cops formed a wall outside the amphitheater as several young, mostly black men and women in keffiyeh and t-shirts with social justice slogans approached the gate. A cop explained that the campaign had identified them and asked to prevent their entire group from going inside even if they had tickets.
“They don’t want you here on the property,” the officer said, directing them to a designated protest area outside.
“So she’s black and she’s wearing something on her head and she has tickets and you’re not letting her in?” a 20-something blond white man asked.
“Where did you hear me say that?” the officer said.
“What if I have tickets?” the man said. “I’m here to protest and I have tickets.”
“Okay,” the cop said, waving him in.
“So he gets to go in?” a short woman in a red-and-white headscarf said.
The woman was Jasmen Rogers, 26, an activist with the Black Lives Matter Alliance of Broward County. She held up Popsicle sticks with cardboard hearts that said “Love Trumps Hate” that she said her group had planned to distribute to Trump voters inside.
“It makes me feel like we haven’t progressed much beyond the hoses and the dogs,” Rogers told reporters. “That’s the America that Trump wants to make great again.”
Escorted by a dozen officers, Rogers and her group of protesters made their way to the edge of the venue where they played drums and sang songs. The circus-like scene outside attracted tourists along with activists – there was a teenager with a “Baba Booey” sign hoping to attract Howard Stern’s attention and a student in a college sweatshirt who told MSNBC they attended the event “ironically.”
Inside the amphitheater, speaker Laura Wilkerson told the crowd how an undocumented immigrant murdered her teenage son in 2010. Trump often features speakers who have lost family members to criminals in the country illegally.
“This was our family’s 9/11 terrorist attack by a foreign invader,” she said. “The American government has failed to do its job in protecting American citizens.”
As she finished her speech, commotion broke out toward the front as protesters were led out.
“Build the wall! Build the wall! Build the wall!” the crowd chanted in response. “Kick them out! Kick them out! Kick them out!”
The early outburst seemed to clear out most of the protesters by the time Trump arrived, who was mostly uninterrupted except for a small group. A man screamed, “Trump’s a racist!” as he was escorted out. Trump, perhaps not seeing him, said nothing.
Toning things down ever so slightly, Trump held out a withered olive branch to Mexico and Mexican-Americans in his speech.
“I love the Mexican people,” he said. “I love the Hispanic people, so many of them work for me … the problem is their leaders are far too smart.”