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Why Trump can’t (and won’t) stop pushing violent rhetoric, images

The problem is not just Donald Trump’s willingness to promote violent imagery, it’s also his years-long reliance on violent rhetoric and images.


Around this time four years ago, Donald Trump used social media to promote a video in which one of his supporters said, “The only good Democrat is a dead Democrat.” The then-president’s team claimed at the time that he watched the clip before sharing it with the public.

A month later, Trump promoted a different video in which a man in a golf cart with Trump campaign gear was seen shouting, “White power.” The racist language wasn’t hidden deep within a long video: It was audible roughly 10 seconds into the clip.

The back-to-back incidents left the political world with a couple of straightforward options: Either the then-president was promoting disgusting content he agreed with, or he was peddling videos he hadn’t watched, apparently indifferent to the message he was endorsing.

Four years later, the question lingers. NBC News reported:

Former President Donald Trump shared a video on social media Friday that included an image of President Joe Biden bound and restrained in the back of a pickup truck. The 20-second video, which Trump indicated was taken Thursday in Long Island, New York, shows a truck emblazoned with “Trump 2024” and a large picture depicting Biden tied up and lying on his side.

Naturally, it wasn’t long before reporters contacted the Republican’s campaign team for an explanation. As my MSNBC colleague Clarissa-Jan Lim noted, Team Trump thought it’d be a good idea to paint the former president as the real victim.

“Democrats and crazed lunatics have not only called for despicable violence against President Trump and his family, they are actually weaponizing the justice system against him,” the Republican’s spokesperson said.

Right off the bat, it’s worth emphasizing that Biden has never called for “despicable violence” against a political rival. While we’re at it, Trump’s ridiculous conspiracy theories about the weaponization of the justice system are both demonstrably wrong and wholly irrelevant to this controversy.

But what arguably matters most about a story like this is not just the former president’s willingness to promote violent imagery about the president who defeated him, it’s also Trump’s routine reliance on violent rhetoric and images as part of his approach to civic engagement.

A couple of weeks ago, at a campaign rally in Ohio, the Republican told a group of followers that there would be a “bloodbath” if he loses in the fall. There was some question as to the context — many argued that Trump was referring to the fate of the automotive industry, though the comments were open to interpretation — but it wasn’t as if the former president had earned the benefit of the doubt.

In Trump’s first year in the White House, then-spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders insisted that he had never “promoted or encouraged violence.” Even at the time, it was a difficult line to take seriously.

The Washington Post noted soon after that the claim was “laughable,” adding, “Even if you don’t believe Trump has technically incited violence (which he has been sued for), he clearly nodded toward violence at his campaign rallies. Sometimes it was veiled; other times it was unmistakable. Sometimes he was talking about self-defense, but it was clear he was advocating for a ‘form of violence.’”

Even Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas explained in 2016 that Trump had “a consistent pattern of inciting violence.”

In the years that followed, during and after his term, Trump repeatedly offered evidence to bolster the thesis. It’s tempting to publish a comprehensive list of examples, but such a report would run several thousand words.

A Washington Post analysis, published soon after the “bloodbath” controversy, added, “[I]s it really ridiculous to suggest that the guy who warned of ‘riots,’ ‘violence in the streets’ and ‘death & destruction’ if he were wronged might be gesturing in that direction again? Of course not.”

The repetition becomes definitional: This is who Trump is. He’s a man who believes that reliance on violent rhetoric, imagery, and even veiled threats is acceptable as part of our contemporary political discourse.

What’s more, as Joyce Vance, a former federal prosecutor and an MSNBC legal analyst, explained over the weekend, “We know, and more importantly, he knows, how his followers react when he suggests violence.”

It’s precisely why it’s best not to look away.