Trump’s Threats of Violence Are Too Dangerous to Disregard


After all this time, the Donald Trump-outrage news cycle is as familiar as the soak-wash-rinse-repeat cycle on an old washing machine, but sometimes it seems to serve less purpose. However, even as exhaustion and cynicism dull the senses, the option of simply ignoring his utterances isn’t really viable, attractive as it may seem. He’s still too dangerous to disregard—a reality that his latest affront, a thinly veiled threat to Mitch McConnell coupled with a racist slur directed at McConnell’s spouse, Elaine Chao, makes all too clear.

This past Friday night, Trump posted a message about McConnell on his Truth Social platform. Ostensibly a criticism of the Senate Minority Leader’s agreement to a short-term funding deal that will keep the federal government operating until mid-December, the post suggested that McConnell’s reluctance to plunge the country into a debt crisis was motivated by hatred of “Donald J. Trump.” Trump then referred to Chao, who resigned from her post as Transportation Secretary in Trump’s Cabinet shortly after the January 6th insurrection, as “his China-loving wife, Coco Chow.” And he asserted that McConnell himself has a “DEATH WISH.” This at a time when, as the Washington Post pointed out, “lawmakers of both parties have faced increasing threats after crossing Trump.”

McConnell hasn’t publicly responded to Trump’s post: with the midterms barely a month away, the last thing Republicans want to do is talk about the former President. Trump’s spokesman told the Post that it was “absurd” to suggest he had been issuing a threat or inciting violence. Trump was merely saying that McConnell had a “political death wish” for himself and the Republican Party, the spokesman averred. Of course, Trump himself, if he had concerns about his words being misinterpreted, could have made this distinction clear in a follow-up post, or in a campaign speech that he gave in Michigan on Saturday. He didn’t—and the reason that he didn’t is not hard to find. Behind his provocations and incitements, two important political struggles are playing out: a low-intensity civil war in the Republican Party; and a high-intensity effort by Trump to persuade his supporters that his political, legal, and media adversaries are illegitimate actors whose efforts to hold him accountable are “persecution.”

As the various investigations around Trump continue to close in on him, his campaign to discredit and intimidate his accusers will only intensify. On Monday, he sued CNN in a Florida court, claiming that the news network had sought “to defame the Plaintiff in the minds of its viewers and readers for the purpose of defeating him politically.” In a statement, Trump said he will file additional lawsuits “against a large number of other Fake News Media Companies,” and may also “bring appropriate action against the Unselect Committee of January 6th.” Of course, Trump is famous for issuing legal vaporware, and the general counsels of the big media companies won’t be quaking in their Manolos. But for Trump, the threat of fresh lawsuits serves the dual purpose of allowing him to lash out and of further cranking up the political temperature for his followers.

We’ve long known that Trump has no compunction about inciting or praising violence, so long as he also gives himself a bit of legal deniability. The full list of examples is too long to go over, but here are some of them. During the 2016 Presidential campaign, he said he’d pay the legal fees of his supporters if they “knock the hell” out of protesters at his rallies. In 2017, he said there were “fine people on both sides” of the clashes in Charlottesville between white supremacists and counter-protesters, during which a neo-Nazi rammed his car into a crowd, killing a thirty-two-year-old woman. In May, 2020, during the demonstrations against the police killing of George Floyd, he offered to send the U.S. military to Minnesota and tweeted, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” On December 19, 2020, he called on his supporters to descend on Washington on January 6th, saying, “Be there, will be wild.” Last month, in an interview with Hugh Hewitt, a conservative radio host, Trump said the American people wouldn’t stand for him being indicted. When Hewitt pointed out that this statement could be interpreted as an incitement to violence, Trump replied, “That’s not inciting. I’m just saying what my opinion is.”

Sometimes, it’s tricky to separate Trump’s efforts to feed his craving for attention, including negative attention, from the malevolence of his individual communications. In his mind, these are two sides of the same coin. Long ago, he grasped that talking tough and raising the spectre of violence—on the part of individuals or the state—is an attention-grabber. In her new book about Trump, the Times reporter Maggie Haberman reminds us of his odious grandstanding after a notorious 1989 rape in Central Park, which eventually led to the wrongful conviction of five Black and Latino youths. While the police investigation was ongoing, Trump placed a full-page ad in multiple New York newspapers, in which he called for the restoration of the death penalty and the unshackling of the N.Y.P.D., and declared, “I want to hate these muggers and murderers.”

Thirty-three years on, Trump hasn’t changed much, but, because of his altered circumstances, the objects of his hate-mongering now include political rivals who dare challenge him. During his speech in Michigan on Saturday, he accused Democrats of cheating in elections “like dogs” and of “waging a full-scale assault on the most sacred rights and liberties of the American people.” He called the Biden Administration, “sick, they’re sick people,” and he falsely claimed that the F.B.I. “broke into my home in Florida in violation of the Fourth Amendment.” In case anyone in the crowd hadn’t got the message, he said all this added up to “the persecution of Donald Trump and the Republican Party.”

Trump’s self-pitying speech didn’t mention McConnell, but there’s no mystery about what is driving his animosity toward the lugubrious Kentuckian. Before McConnell arrives at the Pearly Gates, he will have a multitude of sins to confess, including his disgraceful treatment of Merrick Garland’s Supreme Court nomination. But ever since November, 2020, McConnell has consistently stated that the election result was a fair one, and, even though he voted against impeaching Trump in February, 2021, he has repeatedly insisted that the former President was directly responsible for the January 6th attack on the Capitol.

In Trump’s world view, these are treasonous sentiments to express. Like all would-be autocrats, the measure of his power is his ability to force people to mouth things that are blatantly false and ridiculous because they fear the consequences of stating the truth. McConnell’s refusal to repeat the Big Lie sends a signal that Trump’s grip on the G.O.P. isn’t total, and this is clearly grating on the King Lear of Mar-a-Lago. If in the current situation there is any silver lining, this is it.

To be sure, however, that lining would be far more substantial if Trump’s comments about McConnell had prompted leading Republicans to come out and repudiate him directly, damn the political consequences. Evidently, that is still asking too much. As of Tuesday, the only well-known G.O.P. politician to have taken this step was Liz Cheney, the co-chair of the January 6th Committee, whose rejection of the Trump faith has already cost her a Republican primary election in Wyoming. On Monday, Cheney called Trump’s social-media post an “absolutely despicable, racist attack.” Elsewhere, the silence of the G.O.P. lambs was deathly. Trump’s troubles may be mounting, but one thing he can still count on is the gutlessness of most elected Republicans. ♦


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