LAS VEGAS — Donald Trump's campaign rally had only been underway for a few minutes Monday night when the first angry eruption occurred.
The Republican frontrunner had invited a supporter up to the stage to recount how his son was killed by an undocumented immigrant. Midway though the story, a pair of protesters interrupted.
"That's why we need gun control!" one called out from the sea of Trump die-hards in the Westgate Resort and Casino ballroom.
A zealous chorus of boos filled the room, while the two protesters brandished a homemade poster ("NO HATE. YOU'RE FIRED.") and began shouting over the din. Demonstrations of this sort are fairly common in presidential campaigns, and the brigade of meaty security guards on duty had strategically positioned themselves throughout the crowd so as to be able to swiftly and discreetly remove any troublemakers.
But it quickly became clear Monday night that the protesters had no interest in a quiet extraction — nor, for that matter, did Trump.
By the time security swooped in, several amped-up Trump supporters had already encircled the protesters — booing, and chanting, and slowly closing in — while a crush of smartphone-wielding media scrambled to capture footage of the clash. The guards managed to remove one protester, but the other resisted, stiffening his limbs and screaming about the First Amendment as they tried to haul him toward the exits. When he toppled to the floor, a horde of rallygoers assembled to hurl insults and threats at him.
"Light the motherfucker on fire!" one Trump supporter yelled.
Physical altercations between protesters, security, and the occasional tough-guy supporter have been a running theme in Trump's combative campaign this year — but Monday night was different. Reporters who regularly cover Trump said they had never seen anything like the fevered, frenzied mood that gripped the ballroom in Las Vegas.
With the candidate's ever darkening political style seeming to grow more perversely effective by the day, his grassroots opponents on the left are becoming more defiant and effective at causing trouble. Activists interrupted Trump at least half a dozen times at the event — and the longer the night wore on, the more crazed many in the crowd seemed to get.
One after another, protesters were forcibly dragged from the ballroom — limbs flailing, torsos twisting in resistance — while wild-eyed Trump supporters spewed abuse and calls to violence.
"Kick his ass!" yelled one.
"Shoot him!" shouted another.
When a white activist proclaimed "Black lives matter!" as she was being carted out of the building, a male Trump supporter leaned toward her and snapped, "White lives matter."
According to NBC News, someone at the Trump rally even yelled a German Nazi-era salute — "Sieg heil!" — while a protester was being removed from the event.
Trump, meanwhile, gleefully narrated the madness from his podium like a tabloid talk show host presiding over an on-camera brawl between guests — egging on the confrontation, whipping the audience into a frenzy, and basking in his fans' celebratory chants.
"Trump! Trump! Trump! Trump!"
"This is what we should have been doing to the other side for the last seven years!" Trump exclaimed during one of the scuffles with protesters.
At several points, Trump berated the reporters in the room for taking pictures of the clashes. "They are terrible!" Trump hissed of the press. "The worst!" Hundreds of riled-up Trump fans turned to face the press corps, and booed loudly.
But while Trump and his hardcore supporters seemed to be enjoying themselves, not everyone was thrilled by the night's unexpected turn toward mayhem. Families with young kids scampered toward the exits well before Trump wrapped up, and some elderly people had to leave in search of medical assistance.
Among those most put off by the display, though, were the recreational spectators who had stopped by simply to see Trump's famous performance in person.
"I just came for the spectacle," said Stephan Reilly, a left-leaning Las Vegas resident whose college-aged son had tagged along for kicks. "This is the best show in town!"
But by the end of the night, neither of them were smiling much.
"I'm very alarmed," Reilly said.
McKay Coppins is a senior writer for the BuzzFeed News politics team, and the author of The Wilderness, about the battle over the future of the Republican Party.
Contact McKay Coppins at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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