Protest rights, protest wrongs

The 2016 Republican presidential primaries have been the most exciting in decades. Now they’re turning into the most frightening, as well, and for that Donald Trump cannot escape responsibility.

Mr. Trump, disingenuous as always, refuses to accept his role in starting the fire. “What have I said that’s wrong?” he defiantly asked an interviewer on Meet the Press who pressed him on the issue. How about this excerpt from an appearance in West Palm Beach on Friday, when he attempted to justify the sucker-punching of a nonviolent protestor at an earlier rally:

“He was swinging, he was hitting people, and the audience hit back, and that’s what we need a little bit more of.”

The candidate even said his staff is “looking into” the possibility that he will pay the legal expenses of the individual who threw the punch. That incident, by the way, was preceded by remarks in Las Vegas on Feb. 22 in which he said this about a protestor: “I’d like to punch him in the face.”

Or how about this one: “If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them. Seriously, just knock the crap out of them, I promise you, I’ll pay for their legal fees.” That was Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Feb. 1.

All of this came to a head in Chicago last week when a Trump rally was canceled because disruptive protests were planned, and police feared violence. Fighting between pro- and anti-Trump factions broke out anyway.

The slugfest brought back unwelcome memories of the riots at the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968, but Mr. Trump refuses to accept blame. He says he deserves credit for canceling the rally. That’s a hoot. His own angry words incited the violence he claims to reject.

A real leader’s response would defuse the situation: “Leave ’em alone, folks. The police will escort ’em out.”

Instead, Mr. Trump is egging on his supporters and telling them not to worry about the legal consequences. That’s the mark of a demagogue, not a leader. A rejection of his campaign oratory and pugilistic approach to protests does not imply an endorsement of the protestors’ tactics or objectives, however.

Protestors have rights. But they don’t include preventing public speakers from being heard, or disrupting a campaign rally so that those who came to hear a candidate are prevented from doing so.

Political candidates have free-speech rights — the right to speak. And the candidate’s supporters must be allowed to listen without unwarranted disruption.

Protestors and campaign supporters can both enjoy their rights, in the same place, at the same time, without violence. It happens all the time. It’s called American democracy.

When the objective of opponents is to disrupt or prevent the rally, or to cause chaos, they undermine their own cause. Violence-triggering actions deepen support for Mr. Trump among his followers. Disruption plays into his hands.

Here’s a better option for protestors: Become a campaign volunteer. Knock on doors on behalf of a favorite candidate. Man a phone bank. Take voters to the polls on Election Day. It’s not as dramatic as staging a riot, but it does more good.

Let Donald Trump have his say without undue disruption. His opponents have the better argument on virtually every issue. They offer details, policies and experience. He offers divisive rhetoric and empty promises. The more he speaks, the less sense he makes.