“I’m more of a counterpuncher,” Donald Trump has said repeatedly. Nearly six months ago when more candidates were in the race, he had typically continued: “You know, Jeb went after me and, if you know, Perry went after me and I went after him. Rand Paul for some reason, out of the blue, came after me, and I went after him. And the other one I guess would be Lindsey Graham. I thought these people were all fine and they came after me and then I had to go after them. Perhaps I did a better job than they did but they all went down and they went down big league.”
The counterpunch strategy was sound. The confident Trump going after his opponents seemed to show strength and resolve. It was clever — if opponents ignored Trump, his strength grew. If they attacked Trump, he pleaded self-defense. The tactic worked, time after time, even deterring opponents from confronting Trump. For months Ted Cruz even went the extra mile and embraced Trump, allowing Trump’s support to harden and his base to expand beyond the fictional low ceiling that the Consultant Class claimed existed. (And Jeb Bush’s super PAC ads in Florida early-on attacked not Donald Trump but Marco Rubio, thus making it more likely that Trump, not Rubio, could triumph in winner-take-all Florida today.)
Now, let’s talk about John McGraw. This man is not a counterpuncher.
At Trump’s campaign rally last Friday in Fayetteville, North Carolina, the 78-year-old pony-tailed gun enthusiast sucker punched Rakeem Jones, a protester already being escorted out by sheriff’s deputies. (A “sucker punch” is an unexpected punch or blow.) Before he was charged with assault and disorderly conduct, John McGraw was asked what he liked about the Trump rally. “You bet I liked it,” he replied, “knocking the hell out of that big mouth.” McGraw elaborated: “We don’t know who he is, but we know he’s not acting like an American. The next time we see him, we might have to kill him.”
That threat speaks to McGraw’s state of mind and it’s not a pretty picture. But at any Trump rally there are thousands of people, or as many as twenty or thirty thousand spectators, so you’ll find at least one John McGraw. It’s the law of statistics applied to political rallies.
It’s wrong to focus only on McGraw and not the disruptors who want to interfere with the right of people to hear Trump. Some of these agitators engage in classic confrontation politics, hoping to stir precisely the overreaction not of McGraw, but of a few dozen McGraws. Sorry, Bernie, but some of your people want a riot. They are simply the latest iteration of the New Left that you celebrated during your many years of unemployment.
In Iowa last month Trump said, “There may be somebody with tomatoes in the audience. If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them, would you? Seriously. OK? Just knock the hell — I promise you, I will pay the legal fees.” Trump defended that by saying he was told in a security briefing some protesters were set to throw tomatoes at his face. Last month at another event, Trump said about a protester: “I’d like to punch him in the face.” In defense, Trump said, “This was a person that was absolutely violent and was like a crazed individual.” This stream of consciousness does not show strength, but weakness.
With those and other raw meat quotes, the media is in full Trump-bashing mood, going so far as to say that Trump should be held accountable for McGraw or any as yet unknown violence in the future. But isn’t Trump the victim here, especially when a man the next day at a Dayton rally jumped over a police barricade to charge toward Trump, requiring the Secret Service to run interference?
Some liberals suggest that Trump, in effect, incites to riot. These same liberals would properly say that a woman who dresses provocatively cannot be held responsible for her rape. But Trump, with his sharp-edged rhetoric, is somehow to blame for a violent reaction. Let’s get real.
Instead of focusing on the organized disruption, reporters are keen on depicting Trump as some sort of fascist. He can be intemperate, to be sure, although Ben Carson suddenly assures us the private Trump is thoughtful. Trump is, for now, a populist and a nationalist; both can pander and are far from what informs a grounded conservative. We can only hope Trump will soon be briefed on major issues. But we cannot deny that Trump surely appeals to a growing, disaffected constituency that feels deserted by the Political Establishment. The critics who trash the Republican front-runner as a “Nazi” or “fascist” thus embolden his offended supporters who feel defamed.
“I do not condone violence in any shape. I do want to see what that young man was doing,” Donald Trump said Sunday when asked about McGraw’s assault on the much younger Jones, “because he [Jones] was very taunting, very loud, very disruptive. From what I understand, he was sticking a certain finger up in the air.”
Big deal, so Jones gave McGraw the finger. Maybe Jones even told McGraw to “f–k off.” But McGraw was quoted as saying “we” might have to “kill” Jones next time. That’s the deal-breaker here. “Nothing condones,” Trump has added. “But I want to see. The man got carried away. He’s 78 years old. He obviously loves this country.”
I don’t know that McGraw’s love of country is obvious. In the context of Trump’s past statements, Trump now says he has instructed his staff to look into paying the legal defense for Mr. McGraw. One of Trump’s supporters said on CNN last night that McGraw “is 78 and may need some help.” Perhaps this loyalty and this compassion by Trump are misplaced.
By paying for McGraw’s legal bills, Trump accepts the thesis of his critics that he, Trump, is responsible for violence. McGraw was not defending Trump against a threat, nor was he engaged in self-defense. He was punching out a protester, under the control of sheriffs’ deputies, on the way out. Finally, it sends the wrong message to other Trump supporters who initiate force, not in self-defense, but in rage. The candidate will subsidize your legal bills.
Trump, on the other hand, is within reality to call many of the protesters “professional troublemakers.” There is evidence that BlackLivesMatter and MoveOn and others have taken to the Internet to recruit disrupters. If all the dissidents want to do is protest, they could have picketed outside a Trump event, rather than prevent people from entering a particular event — and crashing the rally to destroy it.
Many candidates are adept at using hecklers to their advantage. For example, when leftists have confronted Ted Cruz, he engages in a colloquy and easily refutes each point. Cruz thus takes both the intellectual and moral high ground. He uses the disrupter as a prop.
By the time you read this, let’s hope Trump has come to his senses and will not pay for lawyers for Mr. McGraw. Perhaps Trump feels obligated because of his inappropriate pledge to fund the legal bills of his supporters who physically confront protesters. The lesson for him is not to fulfill that pledge, but to void it.
Who knows? Perhaps John McGraw will turn out to be a Vietnam War veteran, a sympathetic figure beset with life-long PTSD, misdiagnosed and mistreated by the VA. And the story will become all about the vets.
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