Riffing from behind a podium at a rally in North Carolina Tuesday, Donald Trump offered the following remark: “Hillary wants to abolish — essentially abolish — the Second Amendment. And, by the way, if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks.” He then paused for a beat, tossed his head to one side and added, “Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is. I don’t know. But I tell you what, that will be a horrible day.”
It’s what a thought might sound like after it’s been gnashed up by several sets of giant metal teeth, but what he seems to mean is: Hillary Clinton wants to abolish the right to bear arms, and if she’s elected, there’s nothing anyone can do about it — except maybe folks who own guns. The suggestion, of course, is that the people with the guns could either mount an armed resistance, or one of them could assassinate President Hillary Clinton.
Reasonably, many have reacted with shock and horror. The shock comes from the fact that no major-party candidate has ever suggested his opponent be shot; the horror follows, with the realization that 13 million people voted for Trump in the primary, and many more have fallen behind him since – and any one of them might find in his suggestion the motivation to act.
Many of Trump’s supporters are already primed to the idea. Take David Riden of Tennessee, a Trump delegate who spoke before the Republican National Convention about his ties to the sovereign movement and his support of the idea that leaders who violate the U.S. Constitution — those who would seek to abolish the Second Amendment, for instance — should be murdered. “The polite word is ‘eliminated,'” Riden said in an interview with Mother Jones. “The harsh word is ‘killed.'”
The week of the convention itself, Al Baldasaro, a Trump delegate and adviser to the campaign on veterans’ issues said in a radio interview, “Hillary Clinton should be put in the firing line and shot for treason.” At the time, campaign spokesperson Hope Hicks told reporters that “of course Mr. Trump does not feel this way.” (A historic fact of note here: before John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Dallas was littered with some 5,000 flyers accusing the president of treason.)
This same sentiment not only permeates Trump’s inner circle – it’s hung in the air there the longest. One of Trump’s closest friends and most constant advisers has said almost the exact same thing as Baldasaro. In 2014, Roger Stone tweeted, “Hillary must be brought to justice — arrested, tried, and executed for murder.”
And it’s not out of character for Trump himself — efforts to spin his comments over the past 24 hours be damned. Throughout his campaign, Trump has called on his supporters to use violence against his irritants, who, to this point, have been mostly protesters.
In November, before violent outbursts became regular features of a Trump rally, the candidate remarked about a protester who interrupted his appearance: “Maybe he should have been roughed up, because it was absolutely disgusting what he was doing.” After he was nearly pelted with a tomato in February, he told his crowd, “If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them, would you? Seriously … I promise you: I will pay for the legal fees, I promise.”
He repeated this sentiment at an event in early March, saying, as a protester was removed from the audience, “Try not to hurt him. If you do, I’ll defend you in court, don’t worry about it.”
With his encouragement, Trump’s supporters started acting on his suggestions. In March, 78-year-old Trump supporter John McGraw sucker-punched a black protester as he was being escorted out of the rally.
“He deserved it,” McGraw said. “The next time we see him, we might have to kill him.”
On Tuesday, former Congressman and current MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, a champion of Trump’s earlier in the campaign, wrote about Trump’s assassination dog whistle. “A bloody line has been crossed that cannot be ignored,” he wrote.
The GOP must abandon Trump, Scarborough continued. But why would they? The Republican Party was home to this kind of violent rhetoric long before Trump came along. For instance, in 2010, Sharron Angle, locked in a tough fight with Democrat Harry Reid, made comments that were milder and more clearly defined than Trump’s, but which were certainly in the same vein: “I’m hoping that we’re not getting to Second Amendment remedies. I hope the vote will be the cure for the Harry Reid problems.”
That same year, shortly before then-Congress member Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head at a meeting with her constituents, local and national Republicans rhetorically targeted her; Giffords’ district was famously featured behind gun crosshairs on Sarah Palin’s map of competitive Congressional districts. “Don’t retreat, instead — RELOAD!” Palin wrote when she tweeted the map.
Giffords’ Republican opponent, Jesse Kelly, took it a step further, with an ad that moved seamlessly from shooting metaphorical guns at Giffords to shooting literal ones. “Get on Target for Victory in November / Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office / Shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly,” his campaign ad read.
On Tuesday, Giffords and her husband, Mark Kelly – gun owners who now run the anti-gun-violence group Americans for Responsible Solutions – said in a statement, “Responsible, stable individuals won’t take Trump’s rhetoric to its literal end, but his words may provide a magnet for those seeking infamy. They may provide inspiration or permission for those bent on bloodshed.”