NASHVILLE — Sharpening his pitch to what he calls “the silent majority,” Donald Trump presented himself Saturday as the “law and order” candidate in the 2016 presidential race, pledging to “get rid” of gangs and give more power to police officers.
Speaking to the National Federation of Republican Assemblies for more than an hour, in the heart of a Southern city where student sit-ins helped launch the 1960s-era civil rights movement, the Republican complained that cops are afraid to be tough in the face of more scrutiny over their tactics.
“I know cities where police are afraid to even talk to people because they want to be able to retire and have their pension,” he said. “They don’t want to be pulled off the police forces. And then you wonder what’s wrong with our cities. We need a whole new mind-set.”
Trump zeroed in on April’s riots in Baltimore, which erupted after the funeral of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old African-American who died of severe injury to the spine while in police custody.
“That first night in Baltimore, they allowed that city to be destroyed,” he said. “They set it back 35 years in one night because the police weren’t allowed to protect people. We need law and order!”
Six officers have been charged in connection with Gray’s death. The first hearing in the case is scheduled for Wednesday. Authorities have been preparing for additional unrest in the city.
Trump described gang members in cities like Baltimore and Chicago as “tough dudes.” But he said that he had just met a group of Nashville police officers outside his event, and that they are “tough cookies.”
“We’re going to get rid of those gang members so fast your head will spin,” he said, not elaborating on specifics. “One of the first things I’m going to do is get rid of those gang members.”
Trump said he personally knows Chicago police chief Garry McCarthy, who was previously the Newark police superintendent. “He’s a phenomenal guy,” said the billionaire. “He could stop this if we allowed him to stop it. … Believe me.”
The New York businessman nodded only minimally to concerns about police brutality. He left unmentioned the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., Eric Garner on Staten Island or Walter Scott in North Charleston, S.C.
In Trump’s view, “99.9 percent” of what the police do is good. “You’re going to have some bad apples,” he said. “It’s disgusting and it’s horrible, but that’s such a tiny percentage. The problem is the good work doesn’t get shown on television.”
This brought loud cheers from a conservative crowd of about a thousand inside Rocketown, a music venue owned by Christian artist Michael W. Smith.
Trump has catapulted to the lead in polls of Republican primary voters by tapping into a widespread feeling of disaffection and frustration. He says in every appearance that he’s activating “the silent majority,” a term first used by Richard Nixon in 1969, who want to take the country back. Critics see it as a dog whistle with racial overtones.
“We’re tired of being the patsy for, like, everybody,” Trump said here Saturday. “Tea party people, stand up and take a bow. You have not been treated fairly. You talk about marginalizing. At least I have a microphone where I can fight back. You people don’t!”
“You don’t know how big you are,” he went on. “You don’t know the power that you have.”
Trump distinguishes himself from the GOP field with a truculent brand of populism, protectionism and nativism. He decried trade agreements that he said have sent jobs overseas and ended his Saturday address by pledging to protect entitlement programs from privatization.
“I will protect Social Security,” he said. “I will protect your Medicare and your Medicaid.”
He got perhaps his biggest cheers of the day by boasting about his back-and-forth with Univision anchor Jorge Ramos during a press conference in Iowa.
“This clown, Jose Reyes, or whatever the hell his name is,” he said. “Ramos! Actually, Jose Reyes is a baseball player. Ramos got up the other day screaming and ranting.”
The crowd cheered when Trump said that he is suing Univision for $500 million and booed when he noted that Ramos’ daughter is a paid staffer for Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Trump complained that people who are brought illegally into the United States as children should not be described as “DREAMers.”
“What about our children?” he said. “What about our children who are in the country? Why can’t they be the ‘dreamers’?”
“Illegal immigrants in many cases are treated better than our veterans,” he added.
During his speech, Trump praised Sharron Angle, the president of the National Federation of Republican Assemblies, for how she handled all the “incoming” and negative coverage of her during a 2010 Senate race against Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid.
“Sharron was great,” he said. “Oh, did they go after her!”
[He didn’t mention that he contributed $2,400 to Reid during that campaign.]
Trump had Angle stand next to him and then quickly asked her to exit so he could continue.
“Get the hell off stage,” he joked. “Thank you, darling.”
Trump was introduced by Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), who has not endorsed any candidate and also warmed up the crowd for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz at a recent event nearby.
Though he professes not to be a politician who panders, Trump said several times that he loves country music. He said he’s been to the Grand Ole Opry and name-dropped several country stars that he knows, including Trace Adkins, John Rich, Clint Black.
Trump also defended his business record, specifically that four of his companies have filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, most recently in 2011. Though these were embarrassing episodes at the time, Trump spun them to his credit Saturday, saying he was just taking advantage of banks and that they show his “wisdom” to get out of Atlantic City before the city’s economic collapse.
“You have to use the laws to your advantage,” he said. “What I did to that bank? Aye yai yai. … I should get credit for having vision that things were on the decline. … I made a lot of money in Atlantic City.”
“Normally I wouldn’t say that,” he added, “but I need your friggin’ votes.”
As he made his way outside, a man pushed through a phalanx of autograph seekers to tell Trump that “The Art of the Deal,” his 1987 business book, “saved my life.”
“I want 10 percent,” Trump said, before hopping into one of four waiting black SUVs and speeding back to the airport.