Donald Trump rose again this week in defense of Vladimir Putin, suggesting that there was no evidence that the Russian President had ordered the assassination of reporters. After offering his thoughts on Putin, the leading Republican Party candidate for the presidential nomination confirmed that as much as he might hate reporters, he had no plans to kill any.
“I hate some of these people,” Trump remarked, gesturing to reporters at the back of a crowd of supporters in Grand Rapids, Michigan, “but I would never kill them. I hate them. No, these people… I’ll be honest, I would never kill them. I would never do that.” He stopped for a moment and cocked his head as if in contemplation, with a hand gesture suggesting he was weighing the pros and cons of the idea. Then he continued, as the crowd laughed and many craned their necks trying to get a glimpse of the reporters at the back of the auditorium. “I would never kill them. But I do hate them. Some of them are such lying, disgusting people. It’s true. But I would never kill them, and anybody that does, I think would be despicable.”
It would be despicable as well if a man in Richmond, California, were to target the local Muslim community with homemade explosives, as William Celli allegedly planned to do before his arrest by the FBI on Sunday. Trump may believe that Celli’s actions would be despicable, but Celli made no bones about being inspired by Trump’s words attacking Muslims, and he confirmed in a tweet that he would follow Trump “to the end of the world.” Robert Dear was similarly inspired by the words of politicians who railed against the killing of babies by Planned Parenthood, when he killed three people. Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik were inspired by the words of ISIS leaders and they killed 14 people. We live in a world that is awash in hateful speech, and a world where people are moved by it.
Deciding to shoot someone in America today does not require mental illness — as we know from years of watching Law and Order — it just requires means, motive and opportunity. With 300 million guns floating around providing the means and a plethora of hate speech providing the motive, and there is no lack of opportunity. Trump’s delivery, as it so often does, oscillated between seriousness and a certain type of levity, and surely no one doubts that Trump’s bit about reporters was his version of stand-up comedy. But given the tenor of the times, will people really be surprised if a reporter is next?
Donald Trump’s language has been unabashedly incendiary, but what makes him different from populists over the years is not the sentiments behind his speeches, but rather the bluntness of the words themselves. Trump has eschewed the long political tradition in Republican campaigns of speaking in code, of using dog whistle politics in order to speak to the racial animosities and xenophobic dispositions of elements of the Republican base while not embarrassing the GOP establishment in polite company.
Unlike leading candidates in campaigns past, Donald Trump does not appear to care about embarrassing himself or the party. Perhaps more to the point, those in the Republican base that have embraced his candidacy — largely middle-aged white men with no college education — appear relieved to no longer have to sit skulking in the shadows during this primary season. They love Trump because he embraces them with open arms, unlike those east coast establishment Republicans who for so long have looked down on them.
With Trump, there are no dog whistles slipped inside a speech otherwise sanitized of offensive language. Channeling the resentments of those that have flocked to his banner, he lays it all out there. The fat cats. The Mexicans. The Muslims. And, of course, the press. As much as establishment Republican candidates like to pal around with the well-heeled elites of the business and financial worlds that fund their campaigns — the haves and the have-mores as George W. once famously described them — it is the downscale white voters, with all their warts and blemishes, that have carried the GOP to victory over the years. This time around, as demographics and diversity are tilting the electoral landscape in the favor of Democrats, those voters loom to be more important to the GOP than ever.
Jeb Bush — like many in the Republican establishment — just can’t come to grips with the nature of the Republican primary electorate. He continues to blame the failure of his efforts to run an uplifting, positive campaign on Trump’s vulgar message and tactics, but the truth is that appealing to the bigotry and xenophobia of elements of the electorate has long been an essential part of the job. Ronald Reagan told his stories about young bucks and welfare queens to stoke the racial animosities of working class and southern whites and bring them into the Republican fold. Jeb’s father ate pork rinds and used the explicitly racial Willie Horton ad when he won the presidency to let those voters know that he was more than just a high brow New England prep school kid, and Jeb’s brother understood how to run as a compassionate conservative in the national spotlight while at the same time serving up red meat to the base.
Nor is pandering to racism and bigotry through coded language and images in presidential contests the exclusive domain of Republicans. Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were each southern politicians who understood how to reach out to the same constituencies that have now gravitated to Donald Trump. Jimmy Carter cloak his language supporting segregated neighborhoods under the language of preserving ethnic purity, while Bill Clinton use his Sister Souljah moment to establish his racial bona fides. What has shocked Jeb and others has been how willing Trump has been to eschew innuendo and code words — that have traditionally provided a patina of deniability to otherwise offensive and destructive language — and, at least in the minds of his supporters, call a spade a spade.
The problem facing the GOP establishment is worse this time around. The white working class electorate drawn to Trump has finally come to realize that immigration and outsourcing and free trade and globalization are all part of the toxic mix of policies supported by the GOP and its business allies that have decimated their lives, their families and their communities. When Jeb tried early on in the campaign to soften the language of the immigration debate, he demonstrated how far out of touch he was with the base of his party. Indeed, the more outrageous Trump’s words have become — and the higher his poll numbers have risen — the more other candidates have begun to mimic rather than push back against his message. Now, with two-thirds of Republicans supporting anti-establishment candidates, GOP leaders may have finally come to realize that Donald Trump is merely the symptom of a deeper problem: a large majority of the those who self-identify as Republicans may no longer believe that the establishment wing of the party shares their goals and values.
Ultimately, as the crowd cheered him on, Donald Trump decided that he would not kill reporters. But he stood before a crowd of Republican supporters and acted as though he was actually considering it, and no one from the leadership of his party stood up to tell him that he had gone too far. Five months ago, Trump was berated by the leadership of his party simply for suggesting that John McCain was not a war hero. This week, he talked publicly about killing reporters and no one said a word. Gone were the coded speech and dog whistles, gone the patina of deniability. All that was left was speech, and it was dangerous, hateful speech.