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The problem with violence at Trump rallies starts with Trump himself

Trump is not just condoning violence. He is encouraging it.

On Wednesday, 26-year-old Rakeem Jones was being escorted out of a Donald Trump rally by security when John McGraw punched him in the face.

Jones was protesting the rally, which is why he was being escorted out by security to begin with. McGraw was charged with the assault. But he was unrepentant.

"He deserved it," McGraw told Inside Edition. "The next time we see him, we might have to kill him. We don’t know who he is. He might be with a terrorist organization."

When Donald Trump was asked about the incident at CNN's debate Thursday night, he generally defended the attendees at his rallies. And on Sunday, he told Chuck Todd on NBC's Meet the Press that he's "instructed (his) people to look into" paying McGraw's legal fees.

Trump routinely pays lip service to the idea that he doesn't "condone" violence. "I certainly don't condone that at all," he said at the CNN debate. "I do not condone violence in any shape," he told Todd on Sunday.

That, frankly speaking, is bullshit. Even if Donald Trump does not, in his heart, want to see people getting beaten up at his rallies, the fact remains that he has consistently encouraged rallygoers to beat up protesters. Even more worrisomely, he has consistently justified his followers' desire to beat people up in terms of their "passion" for his campaign and America.

It is horrifying. And it needs to stop.

Donald Trump literally encourages rallygoers to "knock the crap out of" protesters

A protester at a Trump rally, not getting beaten up. Imagine that!
Joe Raedle/Getty

Here is what Donald Trump said at a rally on February 1 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa (via Mediaite):

"if you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of 'em, would you? Seriously. Okay? Just knock the hell — I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees. I promise. I promise."

Here is what Donald Trump said at a rally on March 4 in Warren, Michigan (via the Associated Press):

During one interruption, Trump said, "Get him out. Try not to hurt him. If you do I’ll defend you in court."

"Are Trump rallies the most fun?" he then asked the crowd. "We’re having a good time."

He then recalled an incident at a New Hampshire rally where a protester started "swinging and punching." Trump said some people in the audience "took him out."

"It was really amazing to watch," he said.

Here is what Donald Trump said at a rally on March 9 in Fayetteville, North Carolina (via the Atlantic):

"See, in the good old days this didn’t use to happen, because they used to treat them very rough. We’ve become very weak."

That last, of course, was said at the same Fayetteville rally where John McGraw sucker-punched Rakeem Jones — the action that Donald Trump later claimed to "not condone."

At this point, Trump can no longer profess surprise that his supporters are engaging in violence on his behalf. It has been happening for months.

This is not to mention the violence against reporters: the AP photographer who was choked by a security guard; reporter Michelle Fields, who was thrown to the ground by Trump's campaign manager on Tuesday night. This is also extremely not-okay behavior. But the press is very good at covering its own members and being outraged about their mistreatment.

Violence by Trump supporters, on the other hand, has gotten so routine that it doesn't always make the headlines. It has gotten so routine that one of my colleagues, upon hearing late Thursday about the incident in Fayetteville, confessed she'd heard something about it earlier in the day — but had "confused it with the other violence against protesters stories."

Trump tells his supporters that their violence stems from their passion for his campaign

What's arguably even more alarming than what Trump says in the heat of a rally to his supporters is what he says about them and to them after the fact.

Here's what he said when asked by CNN's Jake Tapper during Thursday night's debate about the violence at his rallies:

We have 25,000, 30,000 people, they come with tremendous love and passion for the country. You're mentioning one case, I haven't seen, I heard about it, which I don't like. When they see what's going on in this country, they have anger that's unbelievable. They love this country.

They don't like seeing bad trade deals, higher taxes, they don't like seeing a loss of their jobs where our jobs have just been devastated. And I know -- I mean, I see it. There is some anger. There's also great love for the country. It's a beautiful thing in many respects. But I certainly do not condone that at all, Jake.

Trump went on to say inaccurate things about protesters throwing the first punch, and about police removing protesters. But while it's easy to criticize Trump for saying things that are wrong, there are things that are more dangerous than simply lying about the facts. And this part of Trump's response was one of them.

Trump protester rally
Trump "reacting to" a protester at a campaign rally.
Jabin Botsford/Washington Post via Getty

Jake Tapper simply asked whether Trump had done anything to encourage violence. He didn't ask about "passion," or about "love for the country," which is what Trump talked about. Trump drew a connection between the "beautiful" "passion" that his supporters feel for America and the inescapable fact that his supporters keep beating people up at his rallies.

This isn't about the message Trump is communicating to the press or to voters. It's about the message he is sending to his followers. Trump effectively communicated to his followers that it is good and natural, that their frustration with the state of the country shows itself in the desire to beat people up. That it's "beautiful."

This has been going on for months, and we need to face up to it

In August 2015, two Boston men were arrested for beating a homeless Latino man with a metal pole. One of them told police, "Donald Trump was right — all these illegals need to be deported." When Trump was asked about it at a New Hampshire press conference, he initially said he didn't know about the incident — then added:

I will say that people who are following me are very passionate. They love this country and they want this country to be great again. They are passionate. I will say that, and everybody here has reported it.

Here is what I wrote about those comments at the time:

When people are committing hate crimes in your name, you do not call them "passionate." You do not say they "want this country to be great again." You say they do not represent you or your beliefs. You talk about why your followers are different from people who beat up homeless men because they're "illegal."

It has been seven months since that incident, and Trump is using the exact same line of reasoning. If it could initially have been excused as an off-the-cuff response to a reporter during a press scrum, that excuse no longer holds up.

Here is what I wrote in November, after Trump speculated that the Birmingham protester "deserved to get roughed up":

Donald Trump is not directly inciting violence. But violence is happening at Donald Trump events — with some frequency. It's alarming that Trump is not saying, repeatedly, that this is wrong and needs to stop. It is even more alarming that after the August hate crime, and after the repeated incidents at Trump events since then, Trump is willing to say that someone "deserved to be roughed up."

I might have been too willing to give Trump the benefit of the doubt. He might not have been inciting violence at his rallies at the time. But now he very much is.

This is not acceptable behavior in a democracy. It should be Trump's job to tell his supporters not to beat people up — to make sure they clear a way for police officers to escort out protesters, to refrain from joking about the "good old days."

But it's pretty clear, at this point, that Donald Trump cares more about not offending his followers than he does about protecting the safety of people his followers don't like.

So the job falls to his rivals (only one of whom, John Kasich, forthrightly condemned the violence at Trump rallies on Thursday night). It falls to Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus, and to senior elected officials in the Republican Party. It falls to every reporter who gets a chance to interview Trump, or who covers his campaign, to point out consistently and incessantly that Donald Trump incites his followers to violence.

If Donald Trump never becomes president, the people who would be harmed by his policies will be unharmed. But Rakeem Jones won't be unpunched. Mercutio Southall Jr. of Birmingham won't be unchoked. The harm is being done now. And it is not going to get less dangerous on its own.