Characters in Shakespeare plays should make asides. Hamlet should mutter what a fool Polonius is – the audience needs to know what Hamlet is really thinking – but politicians should avoid such things. They need to stay on message. Random musings, aloud, reveal character in ways that are not helpful at all. Don’t mutter that you’d rather be sipping scotch in your Manhattan penthouse than trying to talk about tax policy to this bunch of badly dressed Iowa yokels – even if it is true. Don’t say whatever comes to mind, even if one thought leads to another. Don’t do what Donald Trump just did:
Donald J. Trump on Tuesday appeared to raise the possibility that gun rights supporters could take matters into their own hands if Hillary Clinton is elected president and appoints judges who favor stricter gun control measures.
Repeating his contention that Mrs. Clinton wanted to abolish the right to bear arms, Mr. Trump warned at a rally here that it would be “a horrible day” if Mrs. Clinton were elected and got to appoint a tiebreaking Supreme Court justice.
“If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks,” Mr. Trump said, as the crowd began to boo. He quickly added: “Although the Second Amendment people – maybe there is, I don’t know.”
That was the problem:
Oblique as it was, Mr. Trump’s remark quickly elicited a wave of condemnation from Democrats, gun control advocates and others, who accused him of suggesting violence against Mrs. Clinton or liberal jurists. Bernice A. King, daughter of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., called Mr. Trump’s words “distasteful, disturbing, dangerous.”
Mrs. Clinton’s running mate, Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia, expressed disbelief. “Nobody who is seeking a leadership position, especially the presidency, the leadership of the country, should do anything to countenance violence, and that’s what he was saying,” Mr. Kaine said in Austin, Tex. He called Mr. Trump’s remark “a window into the soul of a person who is just temperamentally not suited to the task.”
And Dan Gross, the president of the Brady Campaign and Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which has endorsed Mrs. Clinton, said Mr. Trump’s statement was “repulsive – literally using the Second Amendment as cover to encourage people to kill someone with whom they disagree.”
“For Trump, violence has become a standard talking point, a common punch line, and even a campaign strategy,” Mr. Gross said.
Well, the man does like talking about beating the shit out of people – that’s his appeal to folks – so he wasn’t joking, but everyone got this wrong anyway:
Mr. Trump and his campaign did not treat his remark as a joke; instead, they insisted he was merely urging gun rights supporters to vote as a bloc against Mrs. Clinton in November. “The Second Amendment people have tremendous power because they are so united,” he told a CBS affiliate in North Carolina late Tuesday.
In an interview with Fox News, Mr. Trump grew adamant. “There can be no other interpretation,” he said, adding, “I mean, give me a break.”
But at his rally earlier in the day, Mr. Trump had actually been discussing what could happen once Mrs. Clinton was president, not before the election.
Oops. There was no way to go back and change the verb tense in that aside. It’s on tape, forever, and really, folks knew what they heard:
Even those in Mr. Trump’s audience appeared caught by surprise. Video of the rally showed a man seated just over Mr. Trump’s shoulder go slack-jawed and turn to his companion, apparently in disbelief, when Mr. Trump made the remark.
And things had been going so well. Sure, the poll numbers were awful. At the moment it looks like he will lose in a historic landslide. Republicans were bailing on him left and right. Fifty of the biggest gun Republican foreign policy experts had just published an open letter saying he was unfit for office. There was open speculation everywhere that he was bat-shit crazy. But he had just given a speech on economic policy in Detroit, and while he got the facts all wrong (unemployment isn’t at forty-two percent) it was standard Republican boilerplate, delivered with competency – he read carefully from the teleprompters. He was disciplined. There were no odd asides.
That lasted one day. Wilmington, North Carolina, was where he got all random again, although others defended him:
Mr. Trump’s fellow opponents of gun control stood by him, focusing on his depiction of Mrs. Clinton as a threat to the Second Amendment.
“Donald Trump is absolutely correct,” said Jennifer Baker, a strategist for the National Rifle Association. “If Hillary Clinton is elected, there is nothing we can do to stop her from nominating an anti-gun Supreme Court justice who will vote to overturn the individual right of law-abiding citizens to own a gun in their home for protection.”
That did not address what he had implied. He should have known better, and maybe he did:
Mrs. Clinton herself learned the hard way: In June 2008, shortly before she conceded defeat in her Democratic primary contest with Barack Obama, she defended her perseverance in a way that critics said alluded to the possibility that Mr. Obama could be gunned down. “We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California,” Mrs. Clinton said at the time. She apologized hours later.
Mr. Trump did not repeat his violent insinuation at a later event in Fayetteville, N.C.
But he didn’t apologize either, which didn’t help:
Senator Chris Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, who has championed gun control since the Sandy Hook mass shooting in his state, called Mr. Trump’s remarks “disgusting and embarrassing and sad.”
“This isn’t play,” Mr. Murphy wrote. “Unstable people with powerful guns and an unhinged hatred for Hillary are listening to you, @realDonaldTrump.”
And Representative Eric Swalwell, Democrat of California, wrote on Twitter that the Secret Service should investigate Mr. Trump for making a death threat against Mrs. Clinton: “Donald Trump suggested someone kill Sec. Clinton. We must take people at their word.”
A Secret Service spokesman, who refused to identify himself, said that the agency was “aware of the comments” but did not elaborate.
But it was just a random aside, wasn’t it? Powerful guns and an unhinged hatred for Hillary will do what they will do. He didn’t explicitly tell anyone to do anything. It was just an aside.
It was also politically stupid:
Others seized on Mr. Trump’s remark as an occasion for mockery. Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, wrote on Twitter that Mr. Trump “makes death threats because he’s a pathetic coward who can’t handle the fact that he’s losing to a girl.”
That woman is going to drive him crazy, but things are crazy enough already:
Mr. Trump’s campaign events have grown increasingly vitriolic, with angry chants and jeers directed at Mrs. Clinton. People at his rallies have with greater frequency loudly called for violence against Mrs. Clinton – catcalls that Mr. Trump has generally let pass.
And on Saturday, Mr. Trump praised his New Hampshire state co-chairman, State Senator Al Baldasaro, who said recently that Mrs. Clinton deserved to face a firing squad over the FBI’s investigation of her use of a private email server while she was secretary of state.
In Wilmington on Tuesday, chants of “lock her up,” which first gained traction during the Republican National Convention, were loud and frequent before Mr. Trump took the stage.
Even Rudy Giuliani couldn’t get back on topic.
“No, no, we’re here to beat her, and keep her out of Washington,” Mr. Giuliani said. He was interrupted by the same chant minutes later.
There is a new commercial saying Clinton is “one of the wealthiest women in politics” and calling her a hypocrite for favoring gun restrictions while having been “protected by armed guards for 30 years.” Her gun policies, the ad says, would leave ordinary people “defenseless” – but folks want to lock her up over the email stuff, or take her out back and shoot her over that. Folks are diffusely riled up.
But there is a specific problem here:
Michael Hayden, the ex-director of the National Security Agency and former head of the CIA, criticized Donald Trump on Tuesday for saying that “Second Amendment people” could stop Hillary from nominating Supreme Court justices. If someone “outside of the hall” said the same thing, Hayden argued, that person would “be in the back of a police wagon now, with the Secret Service questioning him.”
“It suggests either a very bad-taste reference to political assassination and an attempt at humor, or an incredible insensitivity,” Hayden said on CNN’s The Lead with Jake Tapper, via Media Matters. “It may be the latter, an incredible insensitivity to the prevalence of political assassination inside of American history, and how that is a topic that we don’t ever come close to, even when we think we’re trying to be light-hearted.”
A simple rule applies here:
“I used to tell my seniors at the CIA, you get to a certain point in this business, you’re not just responsible for what you say, you are responsible for what people hear,” Hayden said on CNN.
Zack Beauchamp at Vox carries that forward:
As is common with Trump, it is unclear exactly what he’s saying – whether it’s a call for assassination, armed insurrection, or something else entirely. But one thing that people have debated a lot after the comment is whether it was a “joke” or meant seriously.
But in a certain sense, it doesn’t really matter what Trump intended.
Beauchamp then notes a series of tweets from Dallas lawyer Jason P. Steed:
Before becoming a lawyer, Steed was an English professor. He wrote his PhD dissertation on “the social function of humor” and found something important: Jokes about socially unacceptable things aren’t just “jokes.” They serve a function of normalizing that unacceptable thing, of telling the people who agree with you that yes, this is an okay thing to talk about.
This, Steed explains, is why “it’s a joke” isn’t a good defense of racist jokes. By telling the joke, the person is signaling that they think racism is an appropriate thing to express. “Just joking” is just what someone says to the people who don’t appreciate hearing racist stuff – it shouldn’t matter any more than saying “no offense” after saying something offensive.
Likewise, Trump is signaling that assassinating Hillary Clinton and/or her Supreme Court nominees is an okay thing to talk about. He’s normalizing the unacceptable.
Beauchamp worries about that:
This is a broader problem with Trump’s candidacy. Even if he never makes it into the White House, it’s not clear how much damage his penchant for shattering norms against explicit racism and calls for violence is doing to American politics.
Yeah, well, but one can see explicit racism and calls for violence as no more than clearing the air, as being honest. Trump has said that political correctness will get us all killed, but David Cohen argues this is something else entirely:
What Trump said was that a particular group – those who are defined by rallying around guns – should do something about Clinton and her judicial nominees. What can people who rally around guns do that’s different than others? Use those guns.
But it’s really irrelevant what Trump actually meant, because enough people will hear Trump’s comments and think he’s calling for people to take up arms against Clinton, her judges or both. Though most of the people hearing that call may claim he was joking, given what we know about people taking up arms in this country, there will undoubtedly be some people who think he was serious and consider the possibility.
There is a way to talk about this:
What Trump just did is engage in so-called stochastic terrorism. This is an obscure and non-legal term that has been occasionally discussed in the academic world for the past decade and a half, and it applies with precision here. Stochastic terrorism, as described by a blogger who summarized the concept several years back, means using language and other forms of communication “to incite random actors to carry out violent or terrorist acts that are statistically predictable but individually unpredictable.”
That’s a key distinction:
Predicting any one particular individual following his call to use violence against Clinton or her judges is statistically impossible. But we can predict that there could be a presently unknown lone wolf who hears his call and takes action in the future.
Stated differently, Trump puts out the dog whistle knowing that some dog will hear it, even though he doesn’t know which dog.
Cohen has been there:
Those of us who work against anti-abortion violence unfortunately know all about this. Valerie Tarico wrote about this form of terrorism following the Planned Parenthood murders in Colorado Springs last November. The pattern she noted there is 100 percent applicable to Donald Trump and his supporters right now – except that we haven’t yet had the major act of violence at the end of the string.
As Tarico wrote: 1. A public figure with access to the airwaves or pulpit demonizes a person or group of persons. 2. With repetition, the targeted person or group is gradually dehumanized, depicted as loathsome and dangerous – arousing a combustible combination of fear and moral disgust. 3. Violent images and metaphors, jokes about violence, analogies to past “purges” against reviled groups, use of righteous religious language – all of these typically stop just short of an explicit call to arms. 4. When violence erupts, the public figures that have incited the violence condemn it – claiming no one could possibly have foreseen the “tragedy.”
This explains Donald Trump’s campaign against Hillary Clinton to a letter. He has 1) demonized her whenever he can by calling her “Crooked Hillary” and constantly degrading her; 2) organized a convention around which the central theme, repeated over and over, was that Clinton is a criminal who needs to be locked up, clearly using fear and moral disgust as motivators; and 3) is now using violent metaphors (or “jokes,” if that’s what you think his statements were) against her, just short of an explicit call to arms.
Now we just have to hope that #4 doesn’t come about – that violence does not erupt. Though, if it does, we know exactly what Trump and his supporters will say: that they never could have foreseen this tragedy.
And that’s where we are:
Following Trump’s comments, we all have to hope (and, if it’s your cup of tea, pray) that it doesn’t come to this, that the lone wolves out there don’t read this as urging someone to take the next step in the cycle.
Because what Trump has done is clear: He has incited violence against Hillary Clinton and/or her judges, even if he doesn’t know exactly who will carry that violence out.
He just doesn’t understand that he’s done that, but we’ve been here before. When Sharron Angle was running against Harry Reid out in Nevada a few years ago she said this:
You know, our Founding Fathers, they put that Second Amendment in there for a good reason and that was for the people to protect themselves against a tyrannical government. And in fact Thomas Jefferson said it’s good for a country to have a revolution every twenty years.
I hope that’s not where we’re going, but, you know, if this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies and saying my goodness what can we do to turn this country around? I’ll tell you the first thing we need to do is take Harry Reid out.
It sounded like she was calling for the assassination of Harry Reid, but she was actually just calling for armed insurrection if Congress kept doing stupid stuff – she seemed to have had Obamacare in mind. It was pretty simple. In a representative democracy, if a majority of the duly-elected representatives, of the people, vote for what those who put them in office pretty much told them to vote for, and what that majority passes into law is, in your opinion, bad for the country, then you have those Second Amendment remedies. Get your gun and change the government.
That’s where things get a bit confusing. You do that if you believe in democracy – or maybe if you believe that what you see as freedom is far more important than majority-rule democracy. Sharron Angle lost that election, but this was a pretty consistent theme in all the Tea Party talk.
They wanted their country back, but of course it wasn’t really their country. They weren’t the majority, and they weren’t even the majority in the Republican Party, just its most riled-up bloc – but somehow they had framed this as a case where freedom and democracy were in direct conflict. One should oppose “the tyranny of the majority” as some of them called it.
Then it was Obamacare. Now, if the majority of the country wants a bit of gun control – better backgrounds checks and, say, prohibiting rocket-propelled-grenade launchers and howitzers – and they elect people who will make that so – that majority must be stopped. Majority-rule democracy will strip you of your freedoms. The next thing you know there’ll be speed limits on highways. That may seem like snide mockery, but the principle is the same – choose democracy or choose freedom.
That’s not much of a choice. When the president takes that oath of office, when members of Congress take their oaths of office, they swear to defend the Constitution. The oath isn’t about any particular public policy position – treating the poor or unlucky a certain way, or the rich, or even about defending the country. One assumes they’ll do their best to defend the country from all enemies foreign and domestic, one way or another. That’s not the main point. The main point is getting them on record regarding the basic rules we’ve agreed to follow, which is a contract, really, and the structure of all that we are. America isn’t geography. We started out as thirteen states and reached fifty in the middle of the last century, and may one day add Puerto Rico, or not. It’s not a unified culture and a set of specific traditions either – all that changes, all the time. We assimilated lots of different cultures, and the greeting card companies invented all sorts of new traditions over the years. America is actually no more than an idea of how things should be done.
That’s it. That’s all. America is a complex system of checks and balances, where the people, all of them if possible, get to decide what gets done, and what doesn’t. That’s not how it works of course – direct democracy is impossible with a population of over three hundred million and growing. Everyone can’t vote on every single thing, nor would they want to, so we have a representative democracy. We elect those we trust to decide what gets done, and what doesn’t, and leave it to them. If enough people think they’ve screwed up, which happens, we vote someone else into office next time around, and hope for the best, again. But we do make everyone agree to play by the basic rules. There are rules about how laws get passed and wars get started and stopped and all the rest.
Those rules don’t involve guns. It’s all about votes, so yes, elections matter – they do change the course of things – but the system matters even more. If you don’t like the results of an election, and what changed because of it, you don’t have the option of blowing up the system. You took the oath. You’ll play by the rules.
It seems that the Republicans, who pride themselves on being the true defenders of the constitution, have forgotten that. It may be that Donald Trump never knew that. His off-hand aside implied bypassing the matter of who wins the election in November, even if he doesn’t really want some second-amendment patriot to shoot Hillary dead, unless he does. That really doesn’t matter. He doesn’t like a system where the majority decides things. That system is likely to produce a Clinton presidency. A Clinton presidency is likely to result in a few more restrictions on gun ownership. What are ya gonna do about it? He was just musing. It was just an aside. But asides can reveal character in ways that are not helpful at all, and reveal a rather radical political philosophy.
That may be diving a bit too deep, as Kevin Drum makes little of this:
This is yet another example of Trump stepping all over his own message. Yesterday’s big economic speech was supposed to be the latest of his endlessly promised turning points toward greater seriousness, which would allow the news cycle to move off of Trump’s latest gaffe-of-the-day and instead focus on his policies. But within 24 hours of being unchained from his teleprompter, all that was toast. Nobody cares about his economic policies anymore. They just want to know why Trump thinks it’s okay to rally his supporters in favor of murdering Hillary Clinton.
Matt Yglesias points out the broader implications of Trump’s childlike inability to control what comes out of his mouth – “One thing about being POTUS is poorly phrased or indiscreet words can cause market meltdowns or international incidents.”
Maybe so. On the other hand, in a Trump presidency, the entire world might learn very quickly to ignore everything he says. With any luck, maybe that could start happening tomorrow.
Josh Marshall isn’t so sure of that:
You’ve seen the quote. It speaks for itself. But remember this. For Donald Trump, life is about domination. There are dominators and the dominated. Right now he’s being dominated, beaten, humiliated. That may be fun to watch if you’re a Democrat. It’s not fun for him. That psychic injury will drive escalating reactions.
What’s he going to say now, yeah, someone should assassinate Clinton the day after she wins the election? Republicans may soon wish he’d just stick to a random aside now and then.