BOCA RATON, Florida — The penis was walking along the water, and that really set the tone for the rest of the day.
It was a man in a penis suit, to be precise. About 6 feet tall, if you count the inflatable point rising up toward the blue sky. He wore a Donald Trump mask over his face, its silicone mouth stuck permanently in the shouting position. The inflatable testicles jutted out at his ankles, causing him to waddle.
At first, people laughed. “That’s President Penis!” one man said. Another shouted, “Put a rubber on that thing!”
Within seconds, the mood soured.
“Lock him out!” someone said. “Get out of here!” added another.
How quickly people go from laughter to anger.
This was the scene outside the Sunset Cove Amphitheater in Boca Raton just before 3 p.m. on Sunday, four hours before Trump was scheduled to arrive onstage to speak, but it was also a microcosm of Trump’s entire 9-month-long bid for the White House. Trump went from joke to possible physical threat to anyone in his path in less than a year. Over the last few weeks, the questions surrounding his rise have been less about what it means for the Republican establishment and more about what it means for the general safety of the democratic state and the people that inhabit it.
A woman on a red motorized scooter went after the penis man as he made his way down the sidewalk. Later, someone would recall seeing people attempt to let the air out of the costume by poking it. And when a swarm of photographers encircled him, the disdain only worsened.
A different woman, in a Make America Great Again! hat, looked at the press. “Disgusting,” she said. She added that Trump was right—the media only pays attention to the things that make him and his supporters look bad.
In any other Republican contest, the story here would be that this Trump event occurred 48 hours before the winner-take-all Florida primary, where polls show him leading Marco Rubio, the senator here, by 18 points.
The story here, as it is, is that this particular rally took place 48 hours after Trump canceled a rally at UIC Pavilion in Chicago due to what he said were “safety concerns” involving protesters who physically clashed with his supporters.
It was the most dramatic instance of violence in the campaign—but it wasn’t the first.
A few days prior, a black protester at a Trump rally in North Carolina had been struck in the face by a Trump supporter who said that not only did he deserve it, but that next time, “we might have to kill him.”
On Sunday, Trump offered to pay for his resulting legal fees, kind of.
And a few days before that, Trump’s campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, allegedly assaulted Michelle Fields, a reporter for Breitbart News, according to both her own account, including photographic evidence of her injuries, and that of Ben Terris, of The Washington Post.
Trump had made it through the summer, fall, and winter with only minor fights at his rallies—despite his own calls to punch protesters and take them out in stretchers, and his supporters’ shouts to “burn” them and to make them “go back to Auschwitz”—but by last week, things seemed to reach a fever pitch.
A voice came over the loudspeaker in the amphitheater.
“Some people have taken advantage of Mr. Trump’s hospitality by choosing to disrupt his rallies, by using them as an opportunity to promote their own political messages,” he said.
The crowd booed.
“While they certainly have the right to free speech, this is a private event paid for by Mr. Trump. We have provided a safe protest area outside the venue for all protesters. If a protester starts demonstrating in the area around you, please do not touch or harm the protester.”
The nameless voice, also heard moments before the Chicago rally was canceled, then offered an alternative to violence.
“In order to notify the law-enforcement officers of the location of the protester, please hold a rally sign over your head and start chanting, ‘Trump, Trump, Trump!’ Ask the people around you to do likewise until officers remove the protester.”
But Trump and his supporters already have a script with which they deal with those who interrupt them.
When an unwanted person is spotted, the crowd boos as heads turn to identify the culprit. If the protester is persistent enough, Trump stops, stiffening at the lectern with his hands clutching its sides. “Get ’em out of here!” he says, blood rushing to his face.
The crowd echoes him, “Get ’em out of here!”
They’re called “parasites,” and just like parasites, the crowd does whatever it can as a collective body to rid itself of the disease.
This is the Trump rally doctrine.
The unwritten set of rules also dictates that the throng wants to hear about the specific, incredible height of the wall at the Mexican border, the jabbing schoolyard riffs about Republican opponents and the various, vague ways that their lives and their country will be put back in their hands with Trump in the White House.
But sometimes things go south, as they did last week. Sometimes people get carried away.
Long before the event started, a pest made themselves known to the crowd in Boca Raton. Without Trump to guide them, they followed the rules from the loudspeaker, shouting “Trump, Trump, Trump!” and then, “USA! USA! USA!”
Meanwhile, Trump was still in the heartland. Earlier in the day, he held a rally in the gloomy hangar of the Synergy Flight Center in Bloomington, Illinois—77 percent white and a safe 137 miles from Chicago.
Before he took the stage, the crowd chanted, “You better be careful!”—the same message Trump himself had sent to Bernie Sanders on Twitter Sunday morning, warning him to keep his supporters out of his rallies.
But protesters streamed in nevertheless. Some of them came from nearby Illinois State University, either infiltrating the crowd or standing outside in the rain.
“Why does somebody come here thinking they have a right to keep me from hearing what he has to say?” Guy Stayner, of Byron, Illinois, said. “He’s the candidate. We came here to hear the candidate. And yet we have some protester that decides that they want to disrupt everything.” He occasionally snapped photos on his iPad which bore what looked like a homemade label reading: “Waterboarding, how you baptize terrorists.”
Trump told the crowd in Bloomington that if they tried to protest Sanders events the way Sanders’s crowds protest his, “They’ll lock you up for the rest of your life and take you to the electric chair!”
Linda Slabaugh, a nurse attorney in Illinois, also suggested that Trump is not at fault for egging on any kind of unrest at his events.
“If you think of all the thousands of people, you’re going to have somebody get out of line,” said Slabaugh, who attended both the Chicago and Bloomington events. “I don’t think you can blame the candidate for that.”
And when it comes to the well-worn line about paying for legal fees, Slabaugh didn’t buy it as truth.
“I think he’s saying that in jest. I’m sure his attorneys are cringing at that,” she said.
Over an hour late, Trump’s helicopter flew over the crowd in Boca to the theme from Air Force One.
“On Friday we went to Chicago,” Trump said when he took the stage 20 minutes later.
The crowd started to boo, but he interjected. “No, it’s OK!” he said, “we had 25,000 people coming, we had some, I would say they were, uh, let’s be nice—protesters. Let’s say, let’s call them protesters.”
Trump said he “had” to make the decision to cancel the event because “we want peace, we want happiness, we want everybody to go home really happy, really peaceful, so we said, ‘You know what we’ll do? We’ll postpone it.’”
Trump went about his usual routine, but off to the side of the stage, behind a fence, people were screaming at him. “Fuck Trump!” and “Fucking bigot!”
Trump hardly seemed to notice. His security, however, was visibly concerned.
They picked up four large, plastic folding tables and leaned them vertically against the fence, in an effort to block the protesters’ view. A man in a suit who said he worked for the campaign told The Daily Beast he couldn’t comment on a security issue, but while he was focusing on blocking the front of the fence, protesters had found a way to enter the event by going around the back of the fence, which stopped once it hit the water.
A few young people ran out, startling him and the local officers from the sheriff’s department. They managed to push some of the runners back in, but two made it into the crowd unnoticed.
Roman Fuller and his friend Haewon, who declined to disclose her last name, said they were 21 and students at Florida International University. They told The Daily Beast they didn’t have plans to protest, they just wanted to ask Trump supporters how they could like him.
“We fucking hate him!” Haewon said. “Why wouldn’t there be violence? How could all these hundreds of people be here and not react? Like, we’re leaving right now. I can’t even listen to this shit.”
As they talked, security walked up and down the fence, to the water, looking for anyone else trying to sneak into the event.
Some of Trump’s most ardent fans in Boca Raton wanted him to tone down his rhetoric and discourage violence. To illustrate how she felt about some of the things he says, one older woman simply bit her own fist.
But mostly, like elsewhere in the country, Trump’s supporters lay blame for the behavior of their own at the feet of others.
“I just feel that people coming out here are trying to voice their opinion for Mr. Trump,” said Sebastian, who declined to give his last name but said he was from Fort Lauderdale.
The Trump supporters are “peaceful Americans just supporting a candidate,” he said, and the protesters are the ones who have been “nasty” only to “turn it around on us.”