One of the first instances in which Donald Trump publicly broached the subject of political violence came in August 2016, at a campaign rally in North Carolina. Complaining about Hillary Clinton, the Republican presidential candidate said in an unscripted moment, “By the way, and if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know.”
It wasn’t exactly subtle. Trump seemed to suggest at the time that armed conservatives could take matters into their own hands and stop Clinton’s agenda.
As president, Trump has occasionally dipped his feet in the same provocative waters. At an event in Missouri last September, for example, the Republican said, “They’re so lucky that we’re peaceful. Law enforcement, military, construction workers, Bikers for Trump…. These are tough people. These are great people. But they’re peaceful people, and Antifa and all – they’d better hope they stay that way. I hope they stay that way.” A couple of months later, he echoed the sentiment.
“It’s so terrible what’s happening. You know, the left plays a tougher game, it’s very funny. I actually think that the people on the right are tougher, but they don’t play it tougher. Okay?
“I can tell you, I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump – I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough until they go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad. But the left plays it cuter and tougher.”
The fact that Trump has used similar rhetoric before does not make this any less alarming. On the contrary, the fact that he keeps returning to the topic suggests his earlier references to political violence weren’t random, accidental asides. This is, in other words, a subject that appears to be on the president’s mind.
His remarks are unsettling for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is Trump’s assertion that public institutions such as law enforcement and the U.S. military are somehow aligned with his administration. It’s one thing for the president to boast about votes he’s received from various constituencies, but it’s something else when a president with authoritarian tendencies suggests, in the context of a question about domestic political tensions, that “the tough people” with guns are on his side.
But note the very next thought he shared in the Breitbart interview: Trump seems to believe “the tough people” with guns, who are purportedly on his side, could escalate matters at “a certain point.”
The president didn’t elaborate as to where he believes the threshold lies, or what it would take, exactly, to provoke “the tough people” with guns to take matters in a “very bad” direction.
But inherent in the sentiment is the idea that there is a breaking point at which all bets are off.
It’s been well documented that Trump has occasionally encouraged his supporters to engage in acts of political violence, but those instances tend to involve his response to protesters at rallies.
The comments to Breitbart appear to be something qualitatively different. It’s less about Trump offering to pay the legal bills of someone who punches a protester at a rally, and more about Trump’s perspective on national division on a grand scale – with the president lining up in his mind who’ll be aligned with him at “a certain point” and who will stand against him and his armed allies.
It’s as disturbing a sentiment as anything Donald Trump has said since taking office.