The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

President Trump, ‘angry mobs’ and ‘very fine people’

Several hundred white nationalists and white supremacists carried torches through the University of Virginia in August 2017 protesting efforts to remove Confederate memorials. (Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post)

While protests existed long before President Trump entered the White House, protest activities seem to have ratcheted up during his term. Trump has certainly taken notice, particularly in the past week, over protests surrounding his Supreme Court nominee. That fight has laid bare a sharp contrast between which types of protests Trump is willing to condemn.

The president took this approach last weekend when he called those protesters, who were mostly women and who did not support Brett M. Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, an angry mob that is “too extreme” and “too dangerous.”

It is true many of the protesters occupying Capitol Hill in these past few weeks were angry with the president, Republican senators and others who backed Kavanaugh. Some Republican lawmakers got calls with threats so severe they had to get police protection. But the protests on Capitol Hill, in lawmakers' districts, and even in front of some of their homes were largely peaceful.

Trump has also characterized the protesters at some of his rallies as a violent threat. While many were certainly disruptive, it is not clear any of them were on the brink of acting violent. In fact, some protesters at Trump rallies have had violent acts committed against them. At several of his rallies that were interrupted by black protesters, Trump reminisced about how socially acceptable it used to be to physically assault protesters.

“In the good old days, this doesn’t happen, because they used to treat them very, very rough,” he said. “And when they protested once, you know, they would not do it again so easily.”

President Trump and GOP senators are framing Democrats as a "mob," after the opposition to Brett Kavanaugh, and hoping to energize conservatives against them. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

But Trump has not had similarly strong words for protesters who are not hostile to him and perhaps even sympathetic to his cause — even when the positions they are rallying in support of are extreme and dangerous.

Dozens of white nationalists descended upon the University of Virginia in 2017 to protest the removal of a Confederate memorial there. They carried lighted torches through the night and chanted “Jews will not replace us.” The photographs of the protesters, mostly white men, showed them with facial expressions that would certainly be described as angry, yet Trump did not call the group a “mob,” even after one of those protesters drove his car into a crowd, killing a counterprotester. In fact, it was the exact opposite.

“You had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides,” Trump said in the days after the events in Charlottesville.

And when Trump supporters responded harshly to anti-Trump activists at his rallies, booing them, referring to them using racial slurs and even going so far as to punch them, the president did not discourage the mob-like behavior, but encouraged it.

At a February 2016 rally in Las Vegas, Trump said: “I’d like to punch him in the face, I’ll tell you that. . . . We’re not allowed to punch back anymore."

At another rally in Iowa the same month, Trump encouraged his supporters to respond violently to those seeking to disrupt his speech: “If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them, would you? Seriously, okay? Just knock the hell . . . I promise you I will pay for the legal fees. I promise, I promise."

And embracing Trump’s call to action, they did.

John McGraw, a 78-year-old Trump supporter, later told Inside Edition he enjoyed punching Rakeem Jones, a 26-year-old black man, at a rally in North Carolina because the protester “deserved it.” He said:

“You bet I liked it. Knocking the hell out of that big mouth. The next time we see him, we might have to kill him. We don’t know who he is. He might be with a terrorist organization.”

Anger is not new when dealing with many of the most controversial issues to surface during the Trump presidency. But Trump’s rejection of mob-like behavior and language appear to be reserved for those who do not support him.