In the wake of last night's canceled Chicago rally, Donald Trump has taken to blaming Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and supporters of his Democratic Party bid for president for incitement. He debuted the argument on Friday night's cable news coverage, as footage of protesters cheering "Bernie" played under Trump's phoned-in interviews. He honed the argument at rallies Saturday.
"They were taunted, they were harassed by these other people," said Trump at his morning rally in Dayton, Ohio. "These other people, by the way, some represented Bernie, our communist friend. With Bernie, he should really get up and say to his people: stop. Stop. Not me, stop."
In a statement released Saturday afternoon, Sanders chose not to do that.
“As is the case virtually every day, Donald Trump is showing the American people that he is a pathological liar," Sanders wrote. "Obviously, while I appreciate that we had supporters at Trump’s rally in Chicago, our campaign did not organize the protests. What caused the protests at Trump’s rally is a candidate that has promoted hatred and division against Latinos, Muslims, women, and people with disabilities, and his birther attacks against the legitimacy of President Obama. What caused the violence at Trump’s rally is a campaign whose words and actions have encouraged it on the part of his supporters."
Sanders had used similar language to criticize Trump last night, as the senator campaigned in Illinois ahead of Tuesday's primary. That language separated him from the three Republican rivals who did step up their criticisms of Trump, and from Hillary Clinton, who'd issued a controversial blanket condemnation of "divisive rhetoric."
On the activist left, the shutdown of Trump's Chicago rally was not a threat to free speech but an exercise of it, aimed specifically at rejecting hate speech. While Trump -- and some Republicans -- condemned the "organized" nature of the protests, the organizers and their supporters spent Friday night and Saturday celebrating it.
In interviews with local and national media, the student organizers who made sure Trump fans would be outnumbered at his rally have detailed a week of work and planning. MoveOn.org, one national liberal group that supporters the protests, widely shared a video of CNN reporting its involvement. After Trump and some Fox News commentators asked whether free speech had been threatened in Chicago, MoveOn's political director Ilya Sheyman took to Twitter to rebut them.
"Trump, like [the] KKK, has right to free speech, as do protestors peacefully speaking out against hateful, violence-inciting roadshow," wrote Sheyman.
Meanwhile, commentators on the left were engaged in a public debate about whether disrupting Trump's rallies was going to egg on his supporters, or whether it was a necessary response to extreme rhetoric that was becoming normalized by the media.
In blaming Sanders and his supporters for unrest, Trump was attempting to put a face -- and a target -- on the disruptions at his rallies. That was both frustrating and amusing for groups like the grass-roots People for Bernie, whose Facebook and Twitter account were used by organizers, but which played no role in organizing.
"Being smeared by Trump is not something that is going to make us stop organizing against injustice," said People for Bernie co-founder Winnie Wong. "That's not even up for debate. But the framing around this being a Bernie thing is ludicrous. Trump's escalating and inciting violence, and that's becoming increasingly clear to everyone."
In his statement, Sanders cited specific examples of Trump telling supporters to shut down protesters with violence.
"He recently said of a protester, ‘I want to punch him in the face,’" wrote Sanders. "Another time Trump yearned for the old days when the protester would have been punched and "carried out on a stretcher.’ Then just a few days ago a female reporter apparently was assaulted by his campaign manager. When that is what the Trump campaign is doing, we should not be surprised that there is a response. What Donald Trump must do now is stop provoking violence and make it clear to his supporters that people who attend his rallies or protest should not be assaulted, should not be punched, should not be kicked. In America people have a right to attend a political rally without fear of physical harm."