Looking down the road, Donald Trump may well see this over and over again — the pepper spray, the walls of angry protesters, the lines of police with their horses and flak jackets.
What happened in Kansas City on Saturday night, and preceding days in Chicago and Dayton and St. Louis, is destined to become a staple of the 2016 political campaign with perhaps profound consequences.
Trump, the GOP frontrunner, has tapped into a geyser of anger and frustration. He’s added to that with his own incendiary rhetoric about racist Mexican immigrants, our “incompetent” president and the need to knock “the crap” out of certain people.
In Kansas City, he threatened to ratchet up the consequences for those “professional disrupters,” as he calls them, who infiltrate his events and knock him off-stride. He now says he wants them arrested.
As the numbers of protesters expand, it’s clear that some Americans have had enough.
Once again on the Sunday morning talk shows, Trump refused to ease up, to “ratchet it back,” in the words of “Meet the Press” moderator Chuck Todd.
“Well ... I’m just expressing my opinion,” Trump told Todd. “What have I said that’s wrong? I mean, I talk about illegal immigration, I talk about building a wall, I say Mexico’s going to pay for the wall, which they will. And all of these things. I mean, what have I said that’s wrong? You tell me.”
Douse the flames that now threaten to overrun the Republican Party? No thanks.
Hillary Clinton has a name for what Trump’s doing — “political arson.”
“If you play with matches, you can start a fire you can’t control,” she said. That, she said, is exactly what’s happened.
So brace yourselves, folks. If this raucous campaign has been too much to swallow, you may soon be gagging on what’s to come.
For the older generation, this next phase of the campaign may well bring memories of the far more bloody Chicago clashes that consumed the 1968 convention when Vietnam and “burn, baby, burn” rioting poured down big-city streets.
For others, the notion that political rhetoric can induce violence — so familiar in Europe — will be something new and altogether frightening.
“The events over the past week have sort of changed the tenor of the campaign,” said University of Missouri political scientist Peverill Squire. “Things have become so conflictual, and Trump’s response has been so harsh that I suspect that a lot of Republicans are going to be very uncomfortable being associated with the Trump campaign.”
Of course, we’ve heard this before. Trump is Houdini-like in his ability to escape near-death political experiences and not only survive, but thrive even in a crowded field.
“What the press is criticizing is exactly what Trump supporters find appealing,” said Patrick Miller, a University of Kansas political scientist. “If you’re a Trump supporter, this reinforces your predisposition that he’s a strong leader.”
So far , all this has played to Trump’s benefit in a primary contest in which he’s demonstrated impressive, and consistent, strength through the first 24 contests.
Tuesday presents another set of tests. He leads in early polls in Missouri and has an even bigger lead in the key state of Florida that, if it holds, could knock rival Marco Rubio from the race.
He’s also easily ahead in Illinois and North Carolina, and trails only narrowly in Ohio.
In other words, Trump is positioned to run the table and effectively end the nomination race, which would rank as a powerhouse performance considering that he faced a dozen candidates only six weeks ago.
But primaries are altogether different competitions from general elections, where the battle over independents and undecided voters forces candidates to jettison their more flamboyant, playing-to-the-base rhetoric in favor of more responsible, centrist appeals.
Broad protests are likely to continue should Trump win the nomination and campaign for the White House.
Weeks of TV news footage of police officers muscling protesters won’t help Trump with that endeavor. He already trails both Clinton and Bernie Sanders in national polling.
The sudden change in the tenor of Trump events has caused rivals, who had pledged to back the real estate tycoon should he become the GOP nominee, to now hesitate.
Rubio acknowledged that it’s getting tougher by the day to back Trump. Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who has steadfastly worked to remain this campaign’s happy warrior, now talks about the “toxic environment” that Trump has created. On Sunday, he admitted that supporting Trump would be tough.
On NBC Sunday, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said, “When you have a campaign that disrespects the voters, when you have a campaign that affirmatively encourages violence, you create an environment that only encourages this sort of nasty discourse.”
On Sunday, Trump threatened to start sending some of his own supporters into Sanders’ events because Trump is convinced that’s where many of the disrupters originate. He warned Sanders in a tweet to “be careful” but denied that was a threat.
“If conservative Republicans ever went into his rally, you would see things happen that would be unbelievable,” Trump said on CNN.
No question that the regular interruptions of Trump’s stump speech in Kansas City were well-planned. They forced Trump to halt more than half a dozen times as police removed one demonstrator after another, including one dressed in a suit and tie.
Outside The Midland in the hours that preceded the event, Trump’s supporters stayed calm even as the anti-Trump protesters sought to provoke. At various times, the Trump backers chanted, “Respect all people” and “We love Mexicans.”
Over and over again, purple-haired Liz Blumenthal of Kansas City paraded right in front of them with a sign reading, “A vote for Trump is a vote for hate.” The Trump backers never engaged her.
More than one came up to me to insist that Trump backers weren’t racist and they weren’t violent.
But Trump’s patience and that of his followers are about to be tested anew. The protesters aren’t going away. It happened again near Cincinnati on Sunday when Trump was interrupted early in his speech.
“Well, it adds excitement, doesn’t it folks?” Trump said. “In certain ways it makes it more exciting.”