The setting was serene – an outdoor amphitheater on a lake, trees swaying in the balmy Florida breeze – but tension filled the air.
Protesters had already been denied entry to Donald Trump’s event, but had others sneaked through, waiting for their moment to erupt? And how would the crowd of several thousand people react?
After a weekend of disruption at Trump rallies – including a Chicago event the Republican front-runner canceled Friday, citing security concerns – Mr. Trump’s rally in upscale Boca Raton, Fla., went off without a hitch. In fact, there were fewer disturbances than at a typical Trump rally, perhaps owing to the intense security.
“We want peace, we want happiness,” Trump said proudly of his Chicago decision at the top of the Boca Raton event Sunday night.
Not surprisingly, attendees interviewed said they were emboldened by the scenes of disruption at Trump events last weekend, not only in Chicago but also in Dayton, Ohio, and Kansas City.
“That made me back him more,” said Patrick Altmiller, a financial adviser from Harrison City, Penn., who just bought a second home in West Boca Raton. “Those troublemakers were planted.”
But Mr. Altmiller and others also said they wished Trump would cool the inflammatory rhetoric, which they don’t see as befitting a possible future president. Trump likes to talk tough about protesters, recently wishing out loud he could punch one in the face, and telling a crowd to beat up someone if they throw a tomato, adding that he would pay the legal fees.
“I think it’s pretty empty, but he shouldn’t do it,” said Altmiller. “He should act more presidential and cut that stuff out.”
Julie Akers, a Trump supporter from nearby Palm Beach Gardens, ascribed his rhetoric in part to the fact that he’s a political novice: “He has a lot to learn.”
But Ms. Akers, a psychotherapist, is still 100 percent behind the real estate mogul’s presidential bid. “We need a huge change, and he’s the one to do it,” she says. But “he should tone it down, she adds. “Part of this is the way he is – he doesn’t want to lose.”
Trump himself told the crowd that his wife and daughter Ivanka want him to behave in a way that’s “presidential.” But he wasn’t sold on the idea. “I sort of like the other way better,” he said playfully.
Because ultimately, Trump is in charge. He projects authority. And that’s an important element of his appeal. Even in deciding to cancel his rally at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), Trump could spin it as a win – that he wasn’t going to let protesters shut down his event, so he shut it down himself.
“I immediately thought of the debate he didn’t attend,” says Walter Podrazik, an adjunct professor of communication and politics at UIC, referring to the Fox News debate that Trump skipped, claiming he hadn’t been treated fairly. Trump held an alternate event, and won headlines anyway.
Mr. Podrazik, who was inside the UIC Pavilion for the Trump event as a neutral observer, said he was surprised when it was canceled. There had been some skirmishes inside during the lead-up, but the confrontations really ignited after the cancellation was announced. The Chicago Police Department later said it was not consulted in the decision to cancel, and said it had guaranteed Trump “safe access and exit” to and from the venue.
Trump and his foes could both claim victory upon the cancellation, and there’s merit to that argument, says Podrazik. “Trump got a prominent spot in news coverage,” he says. “And the people who protested also made their point – that you don’t have to sit there and be mute and not disagree.”
In Boca Raton, at the end of a weekend of disruptions at Trump events – including a man who rushed the stage in Dayton, and repeated interruptions by protesters in Kansas City – security were out in force. A Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office helicopter circled overhead, and a PBSO boat patrolled the nearby lake. On the ground, Secret Service, Palm Beach County law enforcement, Trump’s private security, and campaign officials also kept a strict eye on attendees.
Hours before the rally began, more than 20 protesters from Black Lives Matter Alliance of Broward County were escorted by law enforcement off the land Trump had rented for the event, which included a wide area outside the fenced-in amphitheater. “Trump Makes Us Hate Again,” read the message on one man’s T-shirt.
“Are you scared of my truth?” read the black T-shirt worn by Jasmen Rogers, an organizer for the BLM Alliance of Broward County.
The protesters, most of them black, said they had signed up to attend the rally, but a Trump campaign official ordered them removed.
“We’re trying to spread love,” said Jesse Cosme, a spokesman for the BLM Alliance of Broward. “We still love them.”
Inside the venue, a voice over the loudspeaker announced the rules of engagement with protesters well before Trump arrived. Attendees were instructed to put their Trump posters over their heads and chant “Trump, Trump, Trump” if a protest erupted, to alert security. “Do not touch or harm the protesters,” the voice advised.
Some protesters were ejected before the event started, and another group was ejected as Trump was finishing his remarks - a man and two teenagers, who had been involved in a shoving match, according to the Palm Beach Post.
But it was an otherwise peaceful, if spirited event. Trump bragged about his poll numbers, which showed him in strong position to win the Florida primary Tuesday. He referred repeatedly to “little Marco” and “lyin’ Ted” – Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, both rivals for the GOP presidential nomination – a return to the taunting rhetoric he had temporarily dropped in the last debate. He talked about his lead in various voter groups, including women.
“I do love the women,” Trump said.
After the event, pro- and anti-Trump activists staged a shouting match well outside the perimeter, separated by law enforcement. It was a vigorous display of free speech, on view to attendees heading back to the parking lot. Nearby, Trump’s helicopter sat ready to whisk him away.