Does violent protest help or hurt Trump?

Trump: Protesters in California were 'thugs, criminals'
Trump: Protesters in California were 'thugs, criminals'

    JUST WATCHED

    Trump: Protesters in California were 'thugs, criminals'

MUST WATCH

Trump: Protesters in California were 'thugs, criminals' 02:02

Story highlights

  • Errol Louis says that scenes of protest and violence can cause a serious problem for Donald Trump and harm his political chances
  • Violence at the 1968 Democratic National Convention helped sink that party's chances, Louis writes

Errol Louis is the host of "Inside City Hall," a nightly political show on NY1, a New York all-news channel. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author

(CNN)The crowds of protesters that have dogged Donald Trump's campaign rallies for months appear to be growing in size and intensity, and recently turned violent in California. While the disruptions might at first appear to be counterproductive, the reality is that even loud, obnoxious demonstrators can cause a serious problem for Trump and harm his political chances.

Tense protests outside Trump speech in California
protests donald trump california gop police diamond lead_00003215

    JUST WATCHED

    Tense protests outside Trump speech in California

MUST WATCH

Tense protests outside Trump speech in California 02:17
While Americans by and large accept and respect our long, honorable tradition of political dissent, including civil disobedience, most of us draw the line at violence. It's one thing to stage a mini-demonstration in the middle of a Trump rally and then peaceably get escorted out -- but quite another to create so much havoc that the campaign is forced to cancel the candidate's appearance, which happened in Chicago in March.
    In the wake of the Chicago violence, Trump camp blamed the disruption on his Democratic rivals. "This free speech-busting goon squad operation is directed by supporters of Hillary Clinton," claimed Trump supporter and political operative Roger Stone, while Trump pointed the finger at Sen. Bernie Sanders, who strongly denied the accusation.
    There's no credible evidence linking either Democratic candidate to the violence shadowing the Trump rallies. But it would be a mistake to think the violence won't harm Trump politically.
    For starters, potential Trump voters could end up staying away from his rallies for fear of being caught up in violence. And if enough people curious about Trump never get to hear his message in person, it's more likely they won't end up supporting him -- the exact reaction that violent protesters want.
    That's a direct attack on free speech, but Trump will have a hard time playing the role of innocent victim, because he has openly and repeatedly encouraged his supporters to respond to rude or rowdy protesters with violence.
    "Try not to hurt him," Trump said from the podium at a speech in Michigan in March. "If you do, I'll defend you in court, don't worry about it."
    When asked to comment on protesters getting assaulted at his rallies, the candidate said: "The audience hit back. That's what we need a little bit more of."
    Trump has been spoiling for a fight, encouraging demonstrators and supporters to mix it up. He must now accept a share of the blame for what has predictably and inevitably followed his incitement.
    For an object lesson in the harm political violence can do, look no further than the riots that took place outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, when out-of-control cops beat anti-war protesters bloody while the cameras rolled. Republican candidate RIchard Nixon pointedly made a peaceful campaign stop in Chicago a few days later, cheered by hundreds of thousands of followers and vowing to restore law and order in America. Nixon ended up winning the fall election in a landslide.
    Therein lies a lesson for Trump and the Republican Party. Demonstrators have the power to create images linking Trump's campaign to violence and disruption -- and that, in fact, is their central goal. Let enough images of rally violence accumulate, and viewers of the news will come to associate Trump with chaos and disorder even if he didn't start or encourage it.
    And while Trump might wish to repeat Nixon's feat of positioning himself as a law-and-order candidate -- the answer to lawless behavior -- his credibility on that score will be compromised by footage of him saying things like, "I'd like to punch him in the face" when referring to demonstrators.
    Attempts by Trump to blame Clinton for the violence will seem credible only to diehard Trump supporters: Clinton, after all, has been through two Senate campaigns and a 50-state run for president without any serious suggestion that she or her followers ever ran or approved of a "goon squad operation."
    It's not clear what Trump can do or say to reduce the number, frequency, tactics and temperature of angry demonstrators, but he'll need to find an answer quickly -- and dial down his own level of coarse comments -- or run the risk of seeing voters who value peace and stability drift away and look elsewhere for the next president.