“Oh, they don’t know who they’re dealing with,” he continued. “They don’t know who they’re dealing with. They just don’t understand. All right. Go home to mom."
“Explain to mom that you tried to take on very powerful people, and many of them physically as well as mentally,” Trump said. “That’s not a good thing to do — not in this room. Be careful. Make sure you don’t hurt them, please. Thank you.”
The powerful people in the room were attending the annual Shale Insight conference, an annual energy-industry event focused on fracking in the Marcellus shale basin, a region that overlaps in part with the key voting states of Ohio and Pennsylvania. Many of those in attendance comported with Trump’s central-casting view of toughness — a number of big guys in hard hats sat near him on the stage.
His response to the protesters was itself quintessential Trump. During the 2016 campaign, he was occasionally more explicit, at one point telling supporters at a rally that if they assaulted a protester who was about to throw a tomato, he would pay the supporter’s legal bills. At another rally, Trump said of a protester that he’d like to “punch him in the face.”
After several incidents in which protesters at Trump rallies were assaulted, Trump modified his language. He embraces physical toughness as a virtue and has demonstrated few qualms about those who speak out against him being handled roughly. But he has mastered the ability to say what he means in a way that he can claim to have meant the opposite. So when the protest began in Pittsburgh, he said what he was supposed to say — but with a wink.
Not that he was being particularly subtle. A few hours later, he tweeted out a clip of his comments with a stage wink so exaggerated that no would could mistake what he was saying.
Trump embraces this idea that he’s the representative of the toughest Americans, people who would do battle for him if necessary. In an interview with Breitbart in March, Trump made that point explicitly.
“I can tell you I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump — I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough,” he said — “until they go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad.”
Trump has said similar things before, and the message isn’t lost on his supporters. Lawyers for a veteran who pushed a protester at a rally during 2016 said that he did so “in response to — and inspired by — Trump and/or Trump campaign’s urging to remove the protesters.” Others have pointed to Trump’s rhetoric as an inspiration for attempted or actual acts of violence. Cesar Sayoc, the man who mailed inert pipe bombs to Democratic politicians and members of the media last year, was a Trump supporter, and Trump’s rhetoric was similarly identified as one causal factor in his actions.
As it turns out, Trump’s rhetoric was the focal point of the protesters in Pittsburgh.
In late October last year, a gunman entered the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood, murdering 11 Jewish worshipers ranging in age from 54 to 97. Shortly before the attack, the alleged shooter identified a Jewish immigration group as a focus of his hatred, merging anti-Semitism with an anti-immigrant sentiment that had escalated as the 2018 midterm elections approached.
Immigrants, in the alleged shooter’s description, were “invaders” — language that Trump himself used both before and after the shooting. Trump’s use of the term became a focus after a mass shooting in El Paso earlier this year, when that alleged shooter claimed to be responding to an invasion of immigrants.
The Pittsburgh protesters, affiliated with an organization called Bend the Arc, posted a statement about their intent.
“The gunman who entered the synagogue a year ago was driven by fear and lies to kill Jewish people and stop new immigrants — but he didn’t invent these lies. He heard them from the mouth of this President and the white nationalists this President and his allies have emboldened and enabled,” it read in part. “And what did this President do? Instead of changing his ways, he doubled down on his ugly rhetoric and policies of fear, leading to more violence and deaths, from Poway to El Paso to our nation’s immigrant detention facilities, and beyond.”
“Our lives are in danger,” it concluded, “but our solidarity will set us free.”
Happily, the protesters were not met with physical violence during Trump’s speech, just angry yelling and some middle fingers — and, of course, a president who wanted to remind them and anyone else listening of how strongly he objected to his powerful, imposing supporters using physical aggression to silence the opposition.