In May, the Secret Service investigated Donald Trump’s butler over a Facebook post saying that President Barack Obama “should be shot as an enemy agent.”
Secret Service agents also interviewed a Trump campaign adviser last month, after he said that Hillary Clinton “should be put in the firing line and shot for treason.”
In December, Trump himself appeared on the radio show of the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who has warned that the federal government might round up gun owners “like Jews in Nazi Germany.”
And refrains of “hang the bitch” and “kill the bitch” have grown increasingly common at Trump rallies.
Even before Trump’s Tuesday remark that “Second Amendment people” might stop Hillary Clinton’s Supreme Court appointments, his associates and supporters had repeatedly called for violence against Clinton and Obama, while right-wing leaders and militia groups that support Trump speak of an armed response to federal gun control efforts.
Trump’s campaign said his Tuesday remark was merely a call for gun owners to unite against Clinton this fall. But outraged Democrats said Trump had, at a minimum, made a horribly ill-advised joke about mounting armed resistance to Clinton.
Some analysts said that, whatever Trump’s intended meaning, the comment was dangerous in a campaign already colored by violence, from assaults on protesters at Trump rallies to talk of rebellion and civil war among far-right Trump supporters.
“There is no question that there’s more violent and hateful speech” in this campaign than in past presidential contests, said Heidi Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks domestic extremism and hate speech. Militia groups and others filled with rage against the government and Democrats like Clinton and Obama “are emboldened by this campaign and its rhetoric.”
Beirich and others blame Trump for legitimizing talk of violence throughout the campaign, including his jokes about punching and roughing up protesters, his defense of torturing terrorist suspects and even his infamous crack — complete with a pantomimed gunshot — that he could “shoot somebody” in midtown Manhattan and not lose any political support.
Trump supporters say he can’t be held responsible for every incendiary comment made by someone he knows or who supports him, and note that Trump himself has been the target of online death threats, some of which the Secret Service has investigated. “Certain members of the media and various organizations seem to expect Mr. Trump to instantly track down and condemn every irresponsible comment posted anywhere on social media by anyone claiming to be a supporter,” Jason D. Greenblatt, executive vice president and chief legal officer of the Trump Organization wrote in a letter to The Washington Post in May. Trump, he added, is “not responsible for other people’s irresponsible invective.”
But Democrats say that’s not good enough. “The truth is he is responsible, because he could stand there and say, ‘Stop it,’ and tell them no. But he doesn’t,” says Robert Shrum, a Democratic strategist who has run several presidential campaigns.
For instance, Trump only mildly rebuked Al Baldasaro, a New Hampshire state representative and informal campaign adviser, after he said on a radio show last month that Clinton should be shot for treason related to the lethal September 2012 attack on a U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya. Baldasaro advises Trump on veterans’ issues and has appeared next to Trump at campaign rallies.
After Baldasaro’s statement circulated nationally, Trump’s spokesman Hope Hicks said only that the Trump campaign was “incredibly grateful for his support, but we don’t agree with his comments.” Trump did not sever ties with Baldasaro, whom he called out by name at a rally in New Hampshire on Saturday. “Al has been so great,” Trump said. “Where’s Al? Where’s my vet?”
By contrast, when Hillary Clinton’s 2007 New Hampshire campaign co-chairman made a public reference to Barack Obama’s use of marijuana and cocaine as a young man, he was forced to relinquish his campaign title, and Clinton personally apologized to Obama on an airport tarmac.
Trump issued a stronger response in May after media reports revealed that a longtime butler at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida had posted several Facebook messages calling for Obama’s execution. One April 2015 post by the 84-year-old Anthony Senecal said Obama should be “hung for treason,” while another in May of this year lamented that Obama had not been shot years ago. In that case, Hicks issued a statement noting that Senecal had not worked for Trump for years and that “we totally and completely disavow the horrible statements made by him regarding the President.” (According to news reporters, both Senecal and Baldasaro were investigated by the Secret Service, which routinely follows up on threats against presidents and presidential candidates.)
Another Trump associate to call for Clinton’s death is his longtime political adviser Roger Stone, who tweeted in July 2014 that Clinton “must be brought to justice — arrested, tried, and executed for murder.” (Stone was replying to another tweet which accused “leftists” of “making common cause with jihadis.”) Stone spent several years as a Trump confidant and helped to run his 2016 campaign before the men parted ways last fall over undefined strategic differences.
Calls for violence against Clinton are not hard to detect at Trump events. At an event in Ashburn, Virginia, last week, a pre-teen boy in the press area shouted “take the bitch down!” with his nearby mother’s approval. On Tuesday, a reporter at a Trump rally in North Carolina tweeted that someone had shouted, “Kill her! Kill her!” — a refrain that has been heard at more than one Trump campaign events in recent weeks, along with calls for Clinton’s hanging.
The proceedings at last month’s Republican National Convention did not threaten Clinton’s life, but did feature loud calls for her imprisonment for using a private email server while she was secretary of state. Chants of “lock her up” repeatedly emerged from the crowd on the convention floor on two different nights.
“We haven’t seen anything like this in American politics,” said Shrum, who argued that the vitriol around the Trump campaign exceeds even the often-coded racial signals surrounding the 1968 Republican campaigns of Richard Nixon and George Wallace. “Those were dog whistles. Trump’s a siren.”
Of particular concern to experts who track hate speech is the rise of violent rhetoric among anti-government militias and white supremacist groups with which Trump does not directly associate, but that generally root for him.
Trump’s comment about the “Second Amendment people” could resonate with militia groups that often speak of armed resistance to the government. In April, the popular anti-government group Oath Keepers published an essay on its website warning of “outright civil war” in the event that Clinton is elected. “The level of hatred among conservatives for that woman is so stratospheric I cannot see any other outcome,” wrote the author, Brandon Smith, a regular contributor to the site.
In particular, right-wing leaders warn of a supposed federal plan to seize firearms on a mass scale that could lead to domestic conflict. Among them is Jones, the Texas-based host of the radio show and website “Infowars.” A promoter of 9/11 conspiracy theories with a large following, Jones often speaks of a liberal “disarmament agenda.” In January, he warned listeners that the government is “coming for our guns to enslave us,” including through the use of Nazi-style ghettos.
Trump appeared as a guest on Jones’ show a few weeks before, on Dec. 2. During that appearance, Jones told the Trump that “90 percent” of his listeners supported him. “Your reputation is amazing,” Trump said. “I won’t let you down.”
At times, Trump has seemingly condoned the use of violence in politics. During a December appearance on MSNBC, Trump was unfazed by allegations that Russian president Vladimir Putin had ordered the execution of journalists. “I think our country does plenty of killing also,” Trump replied, adding: “There’s a lot of stupidity going on in the world right now. … A lot of killing going on and a lot of stupidity and that’s the way it is.”
Trump has called the 1989 Chinese government crackdown on student-led demonstrations in Tiananmen Square “vicious” and “horrible,” but said it “shows you the power of strength.” In January, he said of the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, who had recently executed a group of alleged traitors that included his own uncle: “You’ve got to give him credit … this guy doesn’t play games.”
There are few clear precedents for Trump’s Tuesday comments about “Second Amendment people.” But his campaign’s statement, which attacked a “dishonest media,” contrasted with past cases where politicians quickly apologized for remarks construed as intimations of violence.
Rejecting calls that she drop out of the Democratic primary race in May 2008, Hillary Clinton cited the June 1968 assassination of Robert F. Kennedy to underscore the notion that it was not late in the race by historical standards. After observers thought Clinton seemed to be suggesting that Obama might also be shot, her campaign quickly issued a statement expressing “regret” if her comment “was in any way offensive.”
And in November 1994, Republican Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina said Bill Clinton was so unpopular on military bases in his state that “he better watch out” and “have a bodyguard” if he were to visit. Helms apologized the next day.
“Of course I didn’t expect to be taken literally when, to emphasize the cost and concerns I am hearing, I far too casually suggested that the president might need a bodyguard, or words to that effect,” the conservative North Carolinian said.“I made a mistake …. which I shall not repeat.”