Know that old cliche "Where there's smoke, there's fire?"
That has been running through my head for the past couple of days, watching violence flare on the campaign trail in and around Donald Trump's rallies. Trump, for his part, insists that he is blameless. "I don't accept responsibility," he told NBC's Chuck Todd Sunday morning when asked about the tenor of his rallies and the skirmishes between protesters and supporters that have become increasingly commonplace.
In Trump's version of events, the recent upswing in confrontation is to be blamed on professional "disrupters" who come to his rallies looking for fights. As for the vitriol coming from his supporters? "The reason there's tension at my rallies is that these people are sick and tired of this country being run by incompetent people that don't know what they're doing on trade deals," with U.S. jobs being shipped out to other countries, Trump told Todd on Sunday.
Don't blame Trump, Trump says.
This is a very familiar pattern of logic for anyone who has watched this Trump campaign closely.
It's not him saying that Mexico is sending rapists and criminals into the United States. It's the Border Patrol officers he has talked to.
It's not him saying that Muslims were on rooftops in New Jersey celebrating on Sept. 11, 2001. It's the "many" news reports of the incidents he saw.
It's not him refusing to denounce the KKK. It's the media misconstruing his comments about a group he's never even heard of.
It's not him saying that Carly Fiorina isn't attractive enough to be president. It's people misunderstanding that when he commented on Fiorina's "face" he was talking about her "persona."
It's not him saying that most white people are killed by blacks. He was just retweeting someone who said that.
It's not him professing admiration for a sentiment expressed by Benito Mussolini. It's someone else's tweet -- and Trump just likes interesting quotes.
And, it's not him talking about genital size in a debate. He was merely responding to attacks on his manhood from Marco Rubio.
Sense a pattern? According to Trump, he is close to the controversy each time but is not the instigator of it.
Now, imagine your kid keeps getting into fights at school. He keeps saying that it's because other kids started it and that it's all just one big misunderstanding. You can't figure out any pattern. It's not the same group of kids he's fighting with. There's no obvious single issue that is causing the fights. At some point — if you are paying attention — you realize that the common thread is your kid. If he's involved in five fights with five different kids, it's unlikely that a) he has no culpability in the whole thing and b) it's all just a misunderstanding.
Trump seems to want credit for starting a movement — and, make no mistake, that is what he's done — but simultaneously wants to avoid any blame for the uglier elements that have been nurtured by that movement.
Yes, people are angry at the state of the country. They're angry that politicians have told them one thing and done another for way too long. They're angry at stagnant wages. They're angry at the political-correctness police who, they believe, are waiting around every corner to shame you for saying what you believe.
And, yes, Trump understood this at an intuitive level very early on in the 2016 campaign and has channeled much of that anger to his great political benefit.
But the idea that he bears zero blame for the environment he creates at his rallies is ludicrous. It's like saying, "Sure, I yelled fire in a crowded movie theater but I wasn't the one who got up and trampled everyone trying to get to the exits."
Anger is one of the most powerful emotions in politics — and in life. Trump has ridden that anger — his own and that of his supporters — to the front of the Republican pack. On Tuesday night, if he wins primaries in Ohio and Florida, he will effectively be the Republican nominee.
With that coveted perch comes responsibility. If you are running for the highest and most powerful office in the country, you don't get to pass the blame buck onto whoever looks to be the most appealing scapegoat. (Trump's scapegoat of choice is the media.)
What Trump has accomplished as a political candidate is absolutely unparalleled. To go from zero to the likely Republican nominee in the space of nine months is unprecedented in modern times. But, he had done so by, at times, stoking the anger and fear of his supporters rather than allaying them. That is a fact obvious to everyone other than Trump.
Trump has promised that his demeanor will change if he is the Republican nominee, that he will be less angry, less confrontational, more presidential. That needs to start happening. Now.