As Kansas City bore witness over the weekend, the nation’s presidential race became a theater for anger and protest, with a cast of thousands throwing itself into the moment and everyone wondering how far the limits can be pushed.
At center stage, of course, was Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump, who wouldn’t have it any other way.
Trump thrives on the drama surrounding his rallies. The protesters who now mass outside of his venues, and those who disrupt his rambling speeches inside the halls, are more useful for fulfilling his insatiable need for attention than a flashing casino marquee.
In Kansas City on Saturday night, national and international media outside of the Arvest Bank Theatre at the Midland on Main Street jostled with citizens armed with cell phones, everybody on hand to record the action. Inside, hecklers interrupted Trump’s speech at least 10 times.
“Please do not touch or harm the protesters,” Trump says at the start of many of his rallies, as though these people were specimens at a zoo.
But in fact protesters have been threatened and roughed up at Trump rallies, as have journalists and even mere spectators. Trump himself has expressed his desire to punch one protester in the face and see another carried out on a stretcher.
The brawling events raise questions about free speech, responsibility and the state of political discourse.
Trump’s right to be bigoted, divisive and a threat to our nation’s unity is beyond dispute. The authority to appeal to people’s worst fears and biases is protected by the U.S. Constitution.
That same First Amendment gives critics the right to loudly but peacefully protest Trump’s appearances in the public square. Kansas City police are cognizant of that right, and their efforts on Saturday were directed at keeping protesters and Trump supporters separated.
The release of pepper spray by police on two occasions is being criticized by some. But overall officers seemed to do a creditable job of controlling a tense situation with only four arrests.
What is acceptable inside of rally venues is murkier. Trump’s exhortations in Kansas City to have disrupters arrested were more evidence of his heavy-handed, authoritarian style.
Trump the reality show host brutally told people, “You’re fired.” Trump the candidate points at protesters and says, “Take them out. Get ‘em out of here.”
Technically, Trump has a point. Federal law prohibits protests in a venue where the Secret Service is guarding someone, as was the case in the Midland on Saturday.
That law is frequently violated. Protesters have disrupted presidential speeches in full view of the Secret Service. Nearly all of the presidential candidates have faced hecklers at their events. Police generally remove them from the premises without filing charges, which overall is a positive indication of how greatly free speech is valued in U.S. society.
Trump portrays himself as the victim of these clashes. His voice is the one being silenced, he tells us. But Trump has given the nation no reason to believe that he cares about First Amendment rights for anyone else.
His campaign has asked police to remove people of color from his rallies, just because they were there. The candidate has offered to pay the legal fees for a supporter who punched a protester in the face. Trump declared that a protester who was assaulted at one of his rallies perhaps “deserved to get roughed up.”
Trump understands and exploits the strain of bloodlust that runs through American society. A public that loves violent movies and video games is drawn to the candidate who fantasizes about seeing a protester removed on a stretcher.
Trump eggs his supporters on, his voice often rising in anger, and his activist opponents — their protest skills honed by Occupy Wall Street, the Black Lives Matter protest and other events — push back.
The result is clashes and ugliness. Just as Trump succeeded in dragging Marco Rubio, Chris Christie and other opponents down to his level, he is forcing all of America to witness an extended mud-wrestling match as this campaign wears on.
We have reached a point where everyone is worried about free speech, but no one is listening to one another. The campaign looks like a theater of the absurd, but its consequences are all too real.
The Star’s choices
The Star recommends Hillary Clinton on the Democratic ticket and John Kasich as the Republican choice in today’s primary elections. They bring valuable experience and sorely needed pragmatism to a contentious race. Missouri has an open primary, so registered voters may request either ballot, regardless of party affiliation.