During an August 9 rally in Wilmington, North Carolina, Donald Trump did what he’s been doing all campaign long he said something controversial and inflammatory.
That, in itself, isn’t surprising to anyone who’s been following the 2016 campaign. Whether he’s calling Mexicans “rapists,” slamming the parents of a fallen soldier, or calling a sitting U.S. Senator “Pochahontas,” we’ve all come to expect the offensive and unexpected when watching the man entertain a crowd.
Finally, after months of dogwhistle statements about how Hillary Clinton supposedly wants to “abolish the Second Amendment” (she doesn’t, by the way), Trump’s Aug. 9, 2016, comment may have taken the rhetoric a step too far when he seemed to suggest that if he were to lose the election, it’d be up to “Second Amendment people” to stop Clinton from appointing judges to fill spots on the Supreme Court.
And it’s pretty clear that at least some of the folks in his audience picked up on what was being not-so-subtly implied.
Understandably, people were pretty shocked by this, and it was reported that the Secret Service even had a chat with the Trump campaign about the whole, “Please don’t put out ambiguous calls that could be interpreted as a request that someone assassinate your political opponent” thing (or maybe not; we’ll never know it’s just been that kind of election, I guess).
The Secret Service is aware of the comments made earlier this afternoon.
U.S. Secret Service (@SecretService) August 9, 2016
Anyway, the whole thing devolved into a question of what Trump meant by his statement, with his campaign insisting that the words were taken out of context or misconstrued. The larger point might be, though, that it doesn’t really matter what he meant so much as what people think he meant.
Over at Mic, Cooper Fleishman explored dark corners of the internet known to house some of Trump’s white supremacist fanbase. Did they take his statement to mean he was encouraging them to “do something” by voting, as the campaign has since said?
No, they heard it as a call to assassinate Hillary Clinton.
On Facebook, a post by Patti Davis, daughter of Ronald Reagan, cited the assassination attempt on her father’s life to chide the Trump campaign for its reckless use of language that could inspire someone to commit an act of violence.
In 1981, John Hinckley Jr. attempted to assassinate Ronald Regan because he believed it would impress actress Jodie Foster.
Addressing Trump directly, Davis warns: “[Your message] was heard by the person sitting alone in a room, locked in his own dark fantasies, who sees unbridled violence as a way to make his mark in the world, and is just looking for ideas.”
Even if Trump really, truly meant “Second Amendment people” should go out and vote, there might be someone somewhere who interpreted that statement as an earnest call for violence. After all, there are plenty of people who will make the argument that the Second Amendment exists in part to protect the people from a tyrannical government. If someone holds that belief and also believes Hillary Clinton is a tyrant, it’s easy to see how quickly that situation could escalate out of the rhetorical and into something truly horrifying.
Families of others lost to political violence including Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy, and Robert F. Kennedy have also spoken out about Trump’s careless words.
In an editorial for the Washington Post, Jean Kennedy Smith and William Kennedy Smith and sister of and nephew to President John F. Kennedy and Senator Robert F. Kennedy, respectively warn of the dangerous impact such a statement can have:
“Today, almost 50 years [after the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy], words still matter. They shape who we are as a people and who we wish to be as a nation. In the white-hot cauldron of a presidential campaign, it is still the words delivered extemporaneously, off the cuff, in the raw pressure of the moment that matter most. They say most directly what is in a candidates heart. So it was with a real sense of sadness and revulsion that we listened to Donald Trump, the Republican nominee for president, as he referred to the options available to ‘Second Amendment people,’ a remark widely, and we believe correctly, interpreted as a thinly veiled reference or ‘joke’ about the possibility of political assassination.”
Later, the two conclude, “The truth remains that words do matter, especially when it comes to presidential candidates. On that basis alone, Donald Trump is not qualified to be president of the United States.”
Bernice King, daughter of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., took to Twitter to express her own opinion on Trump’s comments.
While it’s impossible to control exactly how a message is interpreted by individuals among a crowd, there’s a responsibility for presidential candidates to avoid remarks that can be interpreted in a way that would suggest an openness to violence.
There are many ways Donald Trump could have framed his speech to achieve the point his campaign claims he intended. Suggesting that after the election, “Second Amendment people” “do something” isn’t one of them. Whether or not you agree with Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, Jill Stein, Gary Johnson, Evan McMullin, or somebody else, we have a responsibility to ensure that all of them including our political rivals are free from physical harm.
The responsible thing would be for Mr. Trump to clarify his comments publicly and be more conscientious with his words moving forward. Lives may literally depend on it.