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The VICE Guide to the 2016 Election

How Scared Should I Be of Donald Trump's Campaign Rallies?

Attending the Republican frontrunner's campaign events means putting yourself at the mercy of The Donald and his fans.
Photos by the author

In the column "How Scared Should I Be?," VICE staff writer and generalized anxiety-disorder sufferer Mike Pearl seeks to quantify the scariness of the world around him. We hope it helps you to more wisely allocate that most precious of natural resources: your fear.

Donald Trump said a weird thing this week, responding to critics who have accused the Republican frontrunner of inciting violence among his supporters. Speaking to a crowd in Hickory, North Carolina, on Monday, the Republican frontrunner insisted that there has been "no violence" at his campaign events.


"You know how many people have been hurt at our rallies? I think, like, basically none except maybe somebody got hit once," he said, according to the Washington Post. "It's a lovefest. These are lovefests."

By almost any measure, this is just categorically untrue. Stories of violence at Trump events, carried out by the candidate's apparent supporters, started cropping up months ago. Back in October, cell phone video captured a protestor in Miami getting dragged across the floor by a Trump fan while someone shouted something that sounded like "Kill him!" In November, footage from a Trump rally in Birmingham, Alabama, appeared to show a protester on the ground, surrounded by Trump fans who were punching and kicking him (although to be fair, it looks like the protester threw a punch or two himself).

Then there was last week's incident in Fayetteville, North Carolina, when a septuagenarian Trump fan named John McGraw appeared to sucker punch a protester named Rakeem Jones. McGraw is now facing assault charges.

A Trump supporter takes a swipe at a protester at an Iowa rally on January 28, 2016.

These types of incidents are likely to continue, thanks in no small part to Trump's apparent encouragement—or at least, his failure to condemn violence at his rallies. But is there any way some kind of Trump-related harm could come to me?

Were I to find myself protesting at a Trump campaign event, it seems fair to assume I'd be making myself a target to his rabid fans, or at the very least, to his deep security teams. According to Lee Rowland, an attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union, in most cases, I probably couldn't do much about it: Trump has every right to have protesters forcibly removed from his events, Rowland said, although his campaign's claim that its rallies are private events may be overstating their impunity.


"Calling it a private event I think is a bit much," she said. In short, according to Rowland, while protesters can obviously be kicked out for being disruptive, no one should be able to challenge my presence at a Trump rally if I'm just minding my own business.

"As a general matter, it would be akin to any other kind of trespass law," Rowland said. Private citizens, she explained, "have every right to set rules for that event, including removing people who do not share an enthusiastic, sign waving show of support for the candidate."

Trump supporters can also say whatever they want to their fellow attendees at Trump rallies. So when fans shout "she's got a bomb" at a woman in a hijab—and they have done so—that's technically allowed, and while it may be hateful, the Trump campaign has no legal obligation to kick someone out for saying it. "The campaign has a lot of leeway to determine what it believes is disruptive, or what it believes is at odds with its message," Rowland said.

But if the confrontations get physical, Trump fans like McGraw open themselves up to possible assault charges—even if the contact stops at simply grabbing someone. "I'm certainly not aware of anything that would give them the right to touch another human being without consent in the absence of some official role—if they had not been deputized," Rowland said.

A Trump supporter yells at a protester at a campaign rally in Iowa on January 28, 2016.

While I don't have plans to protest any Trump events, I am in that other group that sometimes finds itself in the crosshairs of The Donald and his fans: the media.


Carlos Lauría, senior program coordinator for the Americas at the Committee to Protect Journalists, has my back. In an email, he said that his organization is "troubled" by what it's seeing at Trump events, including an "increasing number of attacks against reporters," and also by Trump's "aggressive rhetoric towards the press."

The campaign's attitude extends even to journalists who are ostensibly sympathetic to Trump, or at least to his party. The question of whether or not Trump's campaign manager Corey Lewandowski yanked the arm of Breitbart reporter Michelle Fields has blown up in the news over the past week, with the Trump campaign insisting that the incident never happened (and attempting to smear Fields's character in the process). Fields, meanwhile, claims she was pulled all the way to the ground by Lewandowski as she tried to ask Trump a question, and that the incident left her with a bruised arm.

Different angle of Michelle Fields, Ben Terris and Corey Lewandowski. — Jeremy Art (@cspanJeremy)March 11, 2016

Then there's that other scary undercurrent of violence associated with the Trump campaign, namely, the actions of Trump supporters out in the wild, far away from his campaign rallies.

Back in August 2015, Scott and Steven Leader, two Bostonian brothers, were arrested for allegedly beating up and pissing on a homeless man, and according to a police report, told the cops that "Donald Trump was right. All these illegals need to be deported." The Leaders are currently facing hate crime charges for the incident. At the time, Trump tweeted in response that, "We need energy and passion, but we must treat each other with respect."


This past weekend, at a gas station in Wichita, Kansas, a Trump supporter allegedly beat up two college students. At a press conference, one of the students, a young Muslim man named Khondoker Usama, claimed that their assailant, "circled around us and was saying, 'Trump, Trump, Trump, we will make America great again. You losers will be thrown out of the wall,'" according to the Wichita Eagle. Police are still investigating the incident, but so far, Trump hasn't commented on the incident, or tweeted any platitudes about "respect."

As he creeps closer to the Republican nomination, Candidate Trump has repeatedly claimed that he doesn't condone violence, but has also called the anger of his supporters a "beautiful thing," and frequently waxes nostalgic about the days when people used to be able to bash in the heads of protesters. In the case of McGraw, Trump has even said he may foot the bill for a defense.

So how scared should I be of Trump campaign rallies? Cautious, definitely. As a member of the press, my odds of grievous bodily injury are higher than they'd be if I was just an average guy in a "Make America Great Again" hat, but still pretty low. If I decided to protest though, there's a good chance I'd get tackled, pulled to the ground, or shoved aside. Sucker punches appear to be rare—although any sucker punches happening at political rallies should probably be cause for some soul-searching.

Final Verdict: How Scared Should I Be of Donald Trump's Fans?

2/5: Taking normal precautions

Follow Mike Pearl on Twitter.