As we discovered once again on Wednesday, Donald Trump's hateful rhetoric and threats of violence are not just political gamesmanship. They have all too real consequences in the real world. A series of explosive devices have been delivered to prominent liberals and Trump critics over the past 24 hours, including George Soros, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, former CIA director John Brennan, CNN, former Attorney General Eric Holder and Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif. That list may not be complete.
None of these devices has been detonated or caused any injuries, at least so far. That is merciful -- but the intended effect may well have been to spread panic and confusion among Trump's opponents, rather than to maim or kill anyone. That has been accomplished.
Donald Trump is unapologetic and enthusiastic in his embrace of hateful and divisive language. It is ludicrous for him to now pretend he bears no responsibility for these apparent attacks -- although of course he will do exactly that.
Each week of his presidency brings a new low. Trump soils the presidency as he calls his alleged former mistress Stormy Daniels "horseface," mocks women who have survived rape and other forms of sexual assault as "screamers," habitually lies about matters both small and large, undermines the rule of law, shows contempt for democracy, treats the White House as his own personal ATM and wallows in racism, prejudice and bigotry.
Trump continues to threaten members of the press with violence. At a rally in Montana last week Trump channeled his professional wrestling heel persona as he praised Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Mont., for "body-slamming" a Guardian reporter during a special election campaign last year. Trump's audience howled with glee.
It does not end there. One of the most underreported stories of Trump's presidency concerns his use of direct marketing emails to raise funds by terrorizing his most enthusiastic supporters. These emails are unprecedented for what they reveal about a sitting president and the threat he poses to the American people.
Trump's email appeals have been remarkably lucrative. By some estimates they have already helped the president raise $100 million -- most of it from small, individual donations. This is at least metaphorical or potential blood money; Trump is filling his campaign coffers on threats of political violence.
In these campaign emails Donald Trump accuses Democrats of wanting to allow, gangs, "criminals" and "illegal immigrants" into the country who will then rape, rob, murder and otherwise prey upon (white) Americans.
Trump and the Republican Party's relentless push to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court sparked new innovations in fear-mongering and intimidation.
According to Trump and his supporters, Democrats are now "arsonists." With that slur, our president has claimed that one of the country's two institutional political parties -- and their voters and elected officials -- are in essence violent thugs whose political disagreements with Republicans are criminal and destructive.
An October 2018 email from the Republican National Committee, signed by Trump, delivers this message:
Republicans who courageously stood up for Judge Kavanaugh in the face of the liberal mob now need security to protect themselves from death threats.
This has become an urgent matter.
Handing the Democrats the keys to our government in 26 days would be no different from handing matches to an arsonist.
They would have full power to launch any investigation they want against anyone they want, and without any corroborating evidence. [Underlines in original.]
We can’t let it happen …
The menace in Trump's emails is clear -- the "anyone" is by implication Trump's voters.
This threat is even more obvious in this April 2018 email from a PAC called the Trump Make America Great Again Committee:
Let me be clear. Since Day One, this witch hunt has never been about me.
Their target is you.
The swamp doesn’t want you to take your country back, and they will fight to the bitter end to stop you.
That’s why I need you now more than ever before to sustain our movement. The only thing that keeps our movement alive is our members. We CAN’T afford to lose a single one.
Trump's emails to his supporters consistently feature themes of "fighting back," in which his public and other "real Americans" (largely meaning white conservatives and evangelical Christians) are persecuted victims under threat by Democrats or whatever other group that Trump and his allies deem to be the enemy.
Trump's constant rhetorical violence violence is an extension of his authoritarianism and the diseased country which elected him president. He frightens his supporters by referencing some kind of enemy, usually an ethnic or racial minority. Like other authoritarians and political strongmen, Trump then presents himself as the savior. Like the mafiosi he admires, and with whom he often consorted early in his career, Trump is running a political protection racket where he tells his supporters to give him money so that he will keep them safe.
In a post for Slate, Teri Kanefield explains this further:
Robert O. Paxton, in his classic work "The Anatomy of Fascism," defines a cult of leadership as one in which the followers believe the leader’s instincts are better than the logic used by elites. The followers are willing to give up their individuality and freedom in exchange for the leader’s “protection.” And what is Trump protecting his followers from? Scholars Karen Stenner and Jonathan Haidt offer an explanation. In their essay “Authoritarianism Is Not a Momentary Madness but an Eternal Dynamic Within Liberal Democracies,” Stenner and Haidt describe the psychology behind the fervor of the embrace of authoritarians. A certain percentage of the population has “bias against different others” including racial and other minority out-groups. The authoritarian leader stokes their fears, creating a normative threat. These people then turn to the leader as something of a savior. The leader embraces the mythic destiny of the nation. He doesn’t follow laws. He is the law.
Later in that article, Kanefield observes that those "who want to destroy the political establishment today are those who are threatened by growing diversity. Trump’s lies work toward that end."
For decades the American right has cultivated paranoia among conservatives about how "big government" will take away their rights and freedoms, confiscate their property and perhaps imprison them. As president, Donald Trump is explicitly telling his voters and other supporters that Democrats are their existential enemies, who are certain to persecute and punish conservatives if they gain power.
This kind of language is grossly irresponsible and itself borders on criminality. Trump is inciting violence and civil disorder, and the evidence is right in front of us this week.
This is not hyperbole, a game or a joke. While it is surely intended as political gamesmanship, it is much more than that. Trump's repeated deployment of stochastic terrorism and eliminationist rhetoric is a life-and-death matter.
Trump's supporters, like Republicans in general), are much more likely to own guns than Democrats or independents. Right-wing militias and paramilitary groups have increased their recruitment under Donald Trump. They enthusiastically support him and his agenda, and are prepared to follow his orders. Public opinion and other research shows that Republicans, especially Trump supporters, are much more likely to believe that armed revolt may be necessary in the next few years to "protect" their "civil liberties."
America is so deeply polarized that political ideology is increasingly inseparable from personal identity. This is especially true for Republicans: They intensely dislike both Democrats in general and the core groups -- especially nonwhites and women -- at the heart of the Democratic Party's coalition.
While often framed as an if-or-when question, the reality is that Donald Trump's rhetoric, behavior and political values have already spawned lethal violence in America.
In Charlottesville, Heather Heyer was killed by white supremacists and other members of the "alt-right." These right-wing political terrorists also injured dozens of other people. In response, Donald Trump said that at least some neo-Nazis, Klan members and other racial terrorists were "very fine people."
Beginning with Trump's presidential campaign and through his first two years in office there have been numerous incidents when his supporters, often chanting his name or wearing his regalia, have attacked nonwhites, Jews, LGBT people and others they view as the enemy.
Trump supporters have also been involved in lethal violence and domestic terrorism, including school shootings
As catalogued by the Southern Poverty Law Center, white supremacists and other members of the "alt-right" have killed or injured more than 100 people since 2014.
American law enforcement officials identity right-wing militias and paramilitaries as the single largest threat to public order in the country. Over the last two decades, individuals associated with right-wing militias and other paramilitary groups have killed dozens of people and injured hundreds more.
Right-wing militia-style groups gangs such as the Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer have been involved in street fights and mob actions. Last week in Florida, the Proud Boys waylaid and threatened House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, apparently at the behest of the Miami-Dade Republican Party chair.
How have the Democrats responded to Donald Trump and the Republican Party's incessant threats of violence?
As so often happens, the ground is moving beneath the Democrats' feet, and their leaders are desperately trying to maintain their balance by clinging to obsolete rules and norms.
At a rally in Iowa earlier this month, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, a likely 2020 presidential candidate, said this:
You cannot love your country unless you love your fellow countrymen and women. All of them.
We Democrats, we never can be pulled down so low that we hate folk. We can’t hate Republicans. We need each other as Americans. We’ve got to lead with love. You can’t lead the people if you don’t love the people. All the people.
Some Democrats are finally taking a different approach. Hillary Clinton, one of the few high-profile Democrats willing to publicly state that Donald Trump and his supporters represent an serious threat to American democracy, told CNN: “You cannot be civil with a political party that wants to destroy what you stand for, what you care about. That’s why I believe if we are fortunate enough to win back the House and/or the Senate, that’s when civility can start again.”
Former Attorney General Eric Holder, one of the potential bomb targets this week, also seems to understand the constitutional crisis facing America under Donald Trump. At a rally for Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Adams, Holder said: "Michelle [Obama] always says, you know, ‘When they go low, we go high.’ No. When they go low, we kick them. That’s what this new Democratic Party is about."
Holder later elaborated further: "I’m saying Republicans are undermining our democracy and Democrats need to be tough, proud and stand up for the values we believe in -- the end,"
But this awakening by at least some Democratic leaders may be too little, too late. People of conscience who oppose Trump, the Republican Party and their voters should heed the wisdom of Yale philosophy professor Jason Stanley in the Boston Review:
The argument for the marketplace of ideas presupposes that words are used only in their “descriptive, logical, or semantic sense.” But in politics, and most vividly in fascist politics, language is not used simply, or even chiefly, to convey information but to elicit emotion.
The argument from the “marketplace of ideas” model for free speech thus works only if society’s underlying disposition is to accept the force of reason over the power of irrational resentments and prejudice. Language becomes a vehicle for emotion rather than meaning. If the society is divided, however, then a demagogic politician can exploit the division by using language to sow fear, accentuate prejudice, and call for revenge against members of hated groups. Attempting to counter such rhetoric with reason is akin to using a pamphlet against a pistol.
At this moment, it appears likely that Democrats will win control of the House of Representatives in the midterm elections. If American democracy were healthy this would offer some comfort: Donald Trump, as intended and designed by the framers of the U.S. Constitution, would be partially reined in by the Democrats and Congress. The cold truth: American authoritarians like Trump and his allies do not play by the rules. They break them.
Through email, social media, Twitter and his personal state-sponsored Ministry of Truth, Fox News, Donald Trump has been preparing his public for this moment. When the Republicans lose the House next month, he may well proclaim that the election was "stolen" and that there was massive "voter fraud."
Donald Trump has fed his supporters a steady diet of fear, hatred and violence. What will the Democrats do when Trump tells his voters that they have been cheated at the polls? Or when special counsel Robert Mueller reveals the damning truth about Trump's obstruction of justice and entanglement with Vladimir Putin's Russia? Or when the Democratic Party investigates the many obvious examples of wrongdoing by Donald Trump and his administration and the latter breaks all rules and laws to sabotage any accountability?
The United States is not on the brink of a constitutional crisis. It has been in one for more than two years, beginning with Donald Trump's political rise and then his victory in the 2016 election. Will the Democratic Party rise to the challenge? Or will they once again underestimate just how dangerous Trump and his supporters really are?