Yet Trump’s astonishing statements of late advertising violence have elicited little astonishment in response, either from the media or from the public or their elected representatives.
A brief but unsettling bill of Trump’s particulars:
Trump implied that the topmost figure in the U.S. military — the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley — should be “executed.” Executed! This for Milley’s “sin” of reassuring China of stable relations after the insurrectionary mob of January 6 — “an act so egregious,” wrote Trump of Milley, “that in times gone by, the punishment would have been DEATH.” Note how often Trump cites others for treason — when he himself commits treason regularly, for just one example that insurrection he himself incited and, here, with extra-legal DEATH.
Trump has advocated “shooting” shoplifters. Note again how eager Trump is to bail on due process and rule of law — the judicial pillars of our democratic system — and get straight to violence?
Trump urged his supporters to “go after” the New York state Attorney General prosecuting him for fraud relating to his business empire. Trump avoids calling for the A.G.’s assassination, but in this gun-saturated country, how do we think his call to “go after” her is heard, especially among his amped-up base and also as this A.G. is Black? Benignly?
And, reflecting his cavalier ease with political violence, Trump mocked a conspiracist’s hammer attack on Paul Pelosi, husband of former House speaker Nancy Pelosi, in their home last year. Joking to a crowd, Trump asked, “How’s her husband doing, by the way? Anybody know?” His supporters responded with guffaws — shameful, cruel, and scary.
Not to forget, after George Floyd’s killing in 2020, referring to the protesters gathered across from the White House, then-president Trump asked “my military”: “Can’t you just shoot them?” Or that he pardoned accused war criminals for killing foreign civilians. Or that, in his campaign rallies, pointing out a perceived antagonist, Trump mused he’d like to “punch him in the face”? As we see, Trump’s penchant for violence has been front-and-center since 2015, when he announced his candidacy.
But these latest iterations, especially his call to execute the Joint Chiefs of Staff chair, should raise the hair on our necks and raise an outcry. But they haven’t. Why not?
Perhaps it’s because by now Trump is widely seen as outrageous and even unhinged and thus these utterances are simply “priced into” (as the hip new media locution goes) his brand: It’s just “Trump being Trump”? Or perhaps because We the People are suffering from epic information overload, with the news so dire that many are taking frequent and extended breaks from the breaking headlines that bear only more dire news?
But: We should mind this violent rhetoric, especially as it comes from the GOP’s front-runner — repeat: front-runner — for the 2024 presidential nomination. Because, ominously and bewilderingly, Trump’s support keeps growing despite his violent rhetoric and his four criminal indictments. Which should appall conscientious Americans, not only for the anti-democratic future Trump intends, but his base’s willingness to deliver it for him, violently. Recall earlier polls showing one in three Republicans say violence is justified to “save” America. We are in tinderbox territory, and primed.
Democrats, the true institutionalists (and true conservatives) of American Democracy, unlike the now anti-democratic Republicans, should be all over this escalation of Trump’s violent rhetoric: hammering home how easily rhetoric morphs into reality, how a reality of political violence would render our democracy unrecognizable, even unviable; it would cease to be. But few Democrats are raising such outcry.
Notably, though, one Democrat has: President Joe Biden. Speaking at the dedication of the John McCain Library, after excoriating Trump for his anti-democratic agenda, Mr. Biden noted Trump had labeled General Milley a “traitor” and had called for the general’s punishment by death. Mr. Biden went on to note that “hardly any” of the Congressional Republicans called out “such heinous statements.” Said the President, “The silence is deafening. The silence is deafening.”
The silence is deafening among Republicans, even Never-Trumpers. The GOP candidates now running hard against Trump might have scored an easy win by calling out Trump on his violent rhetoric. Only former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley has done so, but then only tepidly, saying such rhetoric is “irresponsible” — not exactly a ringing denunciation.
Media response also has been tepid. In a column titled “Trump’s violent rhetoric is getting muted coverage by the news media,” Paul Farhi of The Washington Post chastised his media colleagues for not covering, for one, Trump’s threat to shoot shoplifters. Noting this threat of extrajudicial killing got covered in California where Trump made the comment, Farhi writes:
“No mainstream TV network carried his speech live or excerpted it later that night. CNN and MSNBC mentioned it during panel discussions…. The Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, NPR and PBS didn’t report it at all. The New York Times wrote about it four days later, playing the story on Page 14 of its print edition.”
Citing tepid media response to Trump’s other threats about General Milley, the New York A.G., etc. — Farhi also recalled Trump’s threat of “death and destruction” following the Manhattan District Attorney’s indictment — he asks journalists Why. Mainly, “the nonresponse was a result of ‘not wanting to amplify dangerous comments by Trump.’” But, says Farhi, this nonresponse allows an authoritarian-in-the-making to plant his dangerous ideas without pushback.
Characterizing the media’s nonresponse as reflecting “the banality of crazy” as it relates to Trump, Brian Klaas, a political scientist studying political violence, writes in The Atlantic:
“American journalists have become golden retrievers watching a tennis-ball launcher. Every time they start to chase one ball, a fresh one immediately explodes into view, prompting a new chase. Eventually, chasing tennis balls gets old. We become more alive to virtually any distraction: The media fixate on [Senator] John Fetterman’s hoodie instead of on stories about the relentless but predictable risk of Trump-inspired political violence.”
But attention must be paid, says Klaas:
“[N]either the American press nor the public can afford to be lulled. The man who, as president, incited a violent attack on the U.S. Capitol in order to overturn an election is again openly fomenting political violence while explicitly endorsing authoritarian strategies should he return to power. That is the story of the 2024 election. Everything else is just window dressing.”
Media voices pushing back include: Alex Kingsbury, a New York Times editorial board member, writing on “Trump’s promise of lawlessness.” Margaret Sullivan, Guardian columnist, writes: “[I]t’s important to understand [Trump’s] rhetoric for what it is — a crucial tool of a political leader plowing the ground for the authoritarian regime he intends to lead.” She quotes an expert on authoritarianism: The would-be authoritarian “tries to demonstrate that democracy has failed and what you’re left with is crime, anarchy and no way to control it — so you create an appetite for a strongman.” Appealing to “reasonable citizens and the reality-based press” to mobilize, Sullivan writes: “The goal is to throw out American democracy and move to something none of us should want.”
As to the public’s nonresponse: Jackie Calmes of The Los Angeles Times writes in a column pointedly titled “Trump’s words can incite violence. Why don’t more Americans care?”: “Trump won’t change, but we voters and the media must, and before the 2024 election.” She goes on:
“We must stop normalizing nasty; our detachment is dangerous. If Trump could ever credibly deny that he was not fomenting violence by his bilge, he lost that excuse on Jan. 6, 2021…. He knows what he’s doing…. Yet we’ve become….immune to this venom. As Biden noted, speaking about the threat to democracy from political violence: ‘The silence is deafening.’ He meant from Republicans, but his admonition goes to each of us.”
And David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, writes of “Trump’s bloody campaign promises”:
“We should listen. These are campaign promises. For many years, Trump has hidden in plain sight — he makes no effort to conceal his bigotries, his lawlessness, his will to authoritarian power; to the contrary, he advertises it, and most disturbing of all, this deepens his appeal.”
Ideally, choruses of politicians denouncing Trump’s escalating violent rhetoric — choruses of both Democrats and Republicans — will start rising up (and give the media something to cover). Even more ideally, these choruses would be a coalition of Democrats and Republicans: I know, I know, it’s a dream, but a politician would know that in a diverse coalition there is special strength, also courage.
Hakeem Jeffries, Democratic House minority leader, in the aftermath of the ouster of Speaker Kevin McCarthy by extremist Republicans, published an op-ed in The Washington Post titled “A bipartisan coalition is the way forward in the House.” Jeffries sees such bipartisan coalition as the best counter to the extremism that prevents “basic governing.” Could not that bipartisan coalition also denounce violent rhetoric?
American culture and history, seen clearly, has its violent origins, which origins pulse today. American kids play cowboys and Indians, with some realizing its inappropriateness. Violence suffuses our pop culture, with dystopian fare being a particularly popular genre (why, I cannot fathom). But if dystopian lawlessness and anarchy were truly understood, not as a future Hell but coming as soon as next year’s presidential election — peddled by arch rhetorician of violence Donald Trump — then the TV would be turned off and a letter to the editor fired off instead.
Enough with silence — it is deafening. On with outcry!