Donald Trump’s rallies are threatening to turn the 2016 Republican presidential primary into a roving brawl. The GOP frontrunner refuses to change his campaign’s disturbing tone, and his rivals are at a loss for how to combat it.
The last few days on the campaign trail have been dominated by chaos, the likes of which hasn’t been seen in American politics in nearly 50 years. On Friday, Trump cancelled a rally in Chicago amid worries of violence. Tensions spilled over into Saturday, with one man rushing the billionaire during a speech in Ohio while another rally in St. Louis erupting in violence.
The standoff threatens to go nationwide on Tuesday, when voters in five states and the Northern Mariana Islands go to the polls.
Making his rounds on the Sunday talk show circuit, the former reality TV star shrugged off the unrest, maintaining that he was within his rights to make the comments.
"I don't accept responsibility, I do not condone violence in any shape," Trump said on NBC's "Meet the Press.” “I'm just expressing my opinion. What have I said that's wrong?"
In fact, he peppered his appearances with fresh lines of attack: labeling the protestors as “professional disruptors” who “don’t love this country,” accusing the media of unfairly covering the demonstrations, doubling-down on his erroneous claim that the man who rushed the stage had connections to ISIS and charging Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders is responsible for the violence, an accusation he originally made in a Tweet.
Bernie Sanders is lying when he says his disruptors aren't told to go to my events. Be careful Bernie, or my supporters will go to yours!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 13, 2016
The Vermont lawmaker vehemently denied the charge.
“I won't shock you … by telling that you Donald Trump lies a whole lot. He calls me a communist. That's a lie. To suggest that our campaign is telling people to disrupt his campaign is a lie. We don't,” Sanders said on CBS’s “Face The Nation.”
As for the inciting incident that created this feverish momentum, the release of video footage showing an elderly man sucker-punching a protester at a Trump rally in North Carolina – for which the attacker was arrested – the billionaire said he might pay the man’s legal bills, something the mogul has promised supporters in previous rallies after giving the green-light to beat up demonstrators.
“I'm going to look at it. I'm going to see what was behind this because it was a strange event,” Trump said.
The three contenders still looking to best Trump for GOP nomination have been put adrift by the bedlam, condemning the anarchy but hesitating to break with their vows to support whoever is the eventual Republican nominee.
Sen. Marco Rubio, whose political future depends on winning Florida’s primary on Tuesday, went the furthest.
“We've not reached the point in this country where our political discourse looks like the comments section of a blog, where people can just say whatever they want about anyone without any rules of civility, no norms that govern how we interact with one another,” he said on ABC’s “This Week.”
“If we've reached the point where we can't debate the proper tax rate or health care policy, our differences on foreign policy, what the government's role should be in education, without resorting to ‘you're a bad person,’ ‘you're an evil person,’ you know, ‘I can say or do anything I want because I'm angry,’ we're going to our lose our republic,” Rubio warned.
Ohio Governor John Kasich refused to “wallow in the mud” with Trump, a strategy that seems to be paying off. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll released early Sunday shows Kasich, who has emphasized a positive message in the face of Trumps’ demagoguery, leading the billionaire by 6 points, 39 to 33 percent, in the Buckeye State.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) said that “in any campaign, responsibility starts at the top."
“And it is not beneficial when you have a presidential candidate like Donald Trump telling his supporters, 'Punch that guy in the face.' We ought to have a president who brings us together, who doesn't seek to divide us,” he said on NBC. But he vowed to uphold his promise to back the GOP nominee.
At this point in the primary calendar, it’s hard to imagine that the mayhem will be enough to trip up the Trump train. Tuesday’s contests likely will be the last for Rubio, who the NBC/WSJ/Marist survey found trailing Trump in Florida by double-digits. The best GOP elders can hope for now is that Cruz and Kasich peel off enough delegates to prevent Trump from reaching the 1,237 threshold and force a contested or brokered convention this summer.
Perhaps realizing he might be coming to the end of his candidacy, Rubio lamented the national outrage that has been codified by the recent ugly incidents.
“I don't know how else to describe this election at this point but, you know, other than it's an important one from a generational perspective, and yet it's turned into a real circus. And now it's turned into something even worse,” he said.