Donald Trump’s latest controversial comments did more than make it harder for him to win over undecided voters concerned about his temperament—it resurrected an ugly history of U.S. violence at the presidential level.
An impromptu comment Tuesday about “Second Amendment people” stopping a President Hillary Clinton from appointing judges was described as a dog-whistle call to violence by critics even after Trump dismissed those interpretations, saying he was simply calling on gun-rights voters to reject Clinton at the ballot box in November. "There can be no other interpretation," he said on Fox News.
Accusing her of trying to undermine the Second Amendment, Trump said at a rally in North Carolina, “If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know. But I’ll tell you what. That will be a horrible day.”
A wave of condemnations—including from the daughter of Martin Luther King Jr., a U.S. congresswoman who retired after surviving an assassination attempt, and a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency—delivered yet another worrisome example to voters concerned about Trump’s temperament. A Bloomberg Politics survey released Wednesday found that just 31 percent of Americans likely to vote in November say he is better than Clinton on having the “right temperament to be president,” while 56 percent said Clinton was better on temperament.
History of Violence
Political rhetoric “has always been full of metaphorical violence,” said Jack Pitney, a political-science professor at Claremont McKenna College. “But what Trump said is different. He may have been joking, but people at the extremes have talked about violent insurrection as a ‘Second Amendment remedy.’ His rallies have attracted lots of people who seem ready to take such language very literally.”
Former CIA Director Michael Hayden, who opposes the 70-year-old Trump, said Trump’s comment showed “an incredible insensitivity to the prevalence of a political assassination inside of American history.”
Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut warned Trump that “unstable people with powerful guns and an unhinged hatred for Hillary are listening to you.”
Four U.S. presidents have been killed by gunshot: Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley, and John F. Kennedy. In 1968, Democratic presidential hopeful Robert Kennedy was shot and killed. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan survived an attempted assassination after he was shot in the chest.
A pattern of aggressive moments on the campaign trail colors the debate over what Trump meant. Many Trump rallies have erupted in physical violence, with protesters being sucker-punched, minorities being taunted, and crowds regularly chanting “Lock her up!” at the mere mention of Clinton’s name. Trump himself has embraced violent language as well, at one point in February saying that he’d like to punch a heckler in the face.
Last week, in an interview with Breitbart News, longtime Trump ally Roger Stone warned of a “rigged” election that would result in a “bloodbath” if Trump was not victorious. “If you can’t have an honest election, nothing else counts,” Stone said. “I think he’s gotta put them on notice that their inauguration will be a rhetorical, and when I mean civil disobedience, not violence, but it will be a bloodbath. … We will not stand for it.”
In a Tuesday night interview on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show, Trump brushed aside the controversy.
“The NRA, as you know, endorsed me—they’re terrific people,” Trump said. “Wayne [LaPierre] and Chris [Cox] and all the people over there and they tweeted out, basically they agree 100 percent with what I said. And there can be no other interpretation. Even reporters have told me. I mean, give me a break.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan, who backs Trump but has had a strained relationship with him, said Tuesday that Trump’s comment sounded like a “joke gone bad.”
“I hope he clears it up very quickly,” Ryan said.
Dave Carney, a New Hampshire-based GOP strategist who advised Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry during their presidential bids, agreed with the nominee. “He is not a polished politico,” Carney said. “That's part of his strength and it both endears him to his supporters and it infuriates his opponents who love to play the victim card every chance they get.”
Though controversial comments like these have limited Trump’s ability to appeal to undecided voters, his core supporters didn’t seem fazed by it, and many accused the media of twisting his words.
“Harmless!” said Texas millionaire Doug Deason, who is giving the maximum contribution allowed to Trump and helping raise money from others. “The left, which means the entire press corps, will twist everything he says from now until the election. Won’t hurt the race at all.”
“Outrageous media bias,” Stone said Tuesday, calling it “an attempt to ‘Goldwaterize’ him,” a reference to 1964 Republican nominee Barry Goldwater, who lost in a landslide.
Trump’s remarks came one day after he sought to move past a stretch of controversy with a speech aimed at unifying the Republican Party. Trump couldn’t go a day without shooting himself in the foot, said David Axelrod, a former top adviser to President Barack Obama.
“I don't think he thought it through. It was a red-meat line he tossed off carelessly to signify solidarity with the crowd,” Axelrod said. “But that is the problem: When you are the president of the United States you can’t do that. The things you say can send armies marching and markets tumbling. And he seems incapable of controlling himself. This is at the core of worries about him.”
Republican vice-presidential nominee Mike Pence, speaking to a few hundred supporters later Tuesday in Pittsburgh, didn’t acknowledge the flap as he reinforced the main points of Trump’s statements.
The rally, in a battleground state where polls this week showed Clinton widening a lead, saw Pence playing a role he’s increasingly assumed in the campaign: saying what Trump meant to say in a non-controversial way and without really acknowledging the underlying controversy.
“We are not just choosing a president, we are choosing in that president a direction for the rule of law in this country,” Pence said, referring to judicial appointments he said could impact abortion rights and the Second Amendment.
Pence said each day the national press “latches on” to another Trump comment and tries to sink him. He pointed to the attendance by the father of the Orlando terrorist at a Clinton rally and the man’s comment that he supports Clinton in part because she’s good on national security.
“The media stays focused on our side of the aisle, not theirs,” Pence said. “It’s 2-on-1 with the media, who are doing most of Hillary Clinton’s work for her, but Donald Trump is still winning with the American people.”
—With assistance from Jennifer Jacobs and Terrence Dopp.