For months, Donald Trump started his events with a 20-minute rundown of the polls. On Sunday, he led off with something different.
He reminisced about the violence at his rallies, and said he hoped that peace would be restored. "We had some, let's be nice, let's call them protesters," he said, recalling the rally in Chicago on March 11 that was canceled as a protest erupted. "And we had had a decision to make. We had to make this decision. We want peace, we want happiness, we want everyone to go home really happy, really peaceful, so we said, 'you know what we'll do, we'll postpone it,' and it was a really wise decision."
On television that morning, he had refused to take responsibility for the anger of his supporters that sometimes is expressed in blows, even though he once mused from the podium that he would like to punch a protester "in the face" and added that he longed for the good old days when such nuisances would be "carried out on a stretcher." Of the demonstrator who actually was punched in the face at a rally in North Carolina on March 9, he said the interloper had brought trouble on himself because he "stuck his finger up in the air." Since then, there was the canceled event in Chicago and a cloud of pepper spray to quell hostilities in Kansas City.
There was little chance of an outbreak of hostilities at his event on Sunday in Boca Raton, Fla., a senior-citizen hotspot where old is the new middle age. It was a long wait in high humidity with no place to sit. But the crowd was docile as "Tiny Dancer" and "Nessun dorma" played at ear-splitting volume. Just in case, upon entering, security took "anything hard that could be thrown," including thousands of umbrellas (it was cloudy) and water bottles.
Control of airwaves
Trump may not feel he has to control the violence, but he does want to control the airwaves and did so this weekend. By refusing to condemn the violence, Trump dominated coverage. A snippet here or there of Sen. Marco Rubio, Gov. John Kasich or Sen. Ted Cruz crept through but only when they were commenting on the melees at Trump's rallies.
The Sunday morning talk shows belonged to Trump as he went on a virtual tour in which he pleaded innocence for the near-riots, congratulating himself for cancelling a Chicago event that threatened to descend into bloodshed and blamed competition for the criticism coming his way from his fellow candidates. When told on CNN that his fellow Republicans were blaming him for "inciting, encouraging violence," Trump shot back that they were criticizing him only because they were sore losers.
"Excuse me. Excuse me. My fellow Republicans are running against me," he told Jake Tapper on "State of the Union" on CNN. "They are losing big league."
He responded by listing his rivals' failings, starting with Rubio. There you have it: It wasn't the near-riots that moved "Little Marco" to say sorrowfully that it was "getting harder every day" to keep his promise to support the Republican ticket regardless of the nominee. The condemnation was somehow linked to Rubio's propensity for missing votes in the U.S. Senate.
As night fell in Boca, Trump made a dramatic entrance. Thousands of faces turned upward as the twinkling lights of his helicopter appeared between the trees. A few minutes later, he offered an olive branch of sorts in the form of a linguistic change, asking the audience to call protesters "disruptors." Someone cried out, "I love you." He noted that it was "a guy" doing the loving.
He's dealt with the New York values business and he's in New York South. After a pregnant pause, he says, "I love you ... anyway."
Master of the pivot
Trump is the master of the pivot. He insults (he calls it branding) his opponents, then takes the high road. He's coarse and crude, then he acts presidential, gracious in victory on Super Tuesday at his estate/club at Mar-a-Lago, which was set up to look like the White House. He's nurtured the chaos all along, now he's negotiating a surrender for the disruptors.
Trump congratulates himself for never using a teleprompter, but his performances are all the same. There's China and the trade deficit, how much better he is than Hillary Clinton, how bad President Barack Obama is, how he's not owned by anyone since he's paying for the microphone, and, whenever attention flags, how big that wall he's building between the U.S. and Mexico is going to be. He joins in the chants of "build that wall," and "USA, USA, USA."
He goes after "Lyin' Ted," and "Liddle Marco," spelling it as if the two d's make him smaller still. He expounds on his love of his fellow man (and woman). "I win with women. I win with men. I love the women. I do love the women," he said. "We win with the military. We win with the vets. We win with young, we win with old. We win with highly educated and we win with less than highly educated."
Surprisingly, hordes of people depart the love-in about a half hour in. Maybe it's the traffic. Or maybe they've heard it all before. Or maybe they're disappointed. They hoped to be part of that other Trump movement. They want to see him make war (enough at least to make the news), not love.
Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.