Speaking with Breitbart News, President Donald Trump delivered a garbled but nevertheless disturbing statement in an article published Thursday that many interpreted as a prediction — or possibly a threat — of political violence.
Though the outlet didn’t provide an outright transcript or quote the questions Trump was responding to, it said the following remark came in a discussion about “how the left is fighting hard”:
“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. Like with all the nonsense that they do in Congress … with all this invest[igations]—that’s all they want to do is –you know, they do things that are nasty. Republicans never played this.”
As is often the case with Trump’s rambling answers and statements, it’s not entirely obvious what he means here. But he seems to be suggesting that while Democrats “play” at being tough — presumably, by using the formal powers of Congress and the courts to check and restrain his power on occasion — Republicans and his supporters are really tough. The clear implication being that, if Democrats go too far (by doing what? Uncovering his criminal activity? Winning the next election?) his supporters will resort to extreme measures to fight back.
Most troublingly, he refers to the “military” as his supporters — implying it may be more loyal to him personally than to the office he holds.
“This is…a threat of fascist violence by the President?” said MSNBC host Chris Hayes, responding to the remarks on Twitter.
Writing for the Washington Post, Greg Sargent reminded us that Trump has played this game before, most notably when he suggested that ‘Second Amendment people” might somehow be able to stop Hillary Clinton from appointing judges if she were elected president.
We shouldn’t casually accuse the president of threatening political violence. But Trump’s garbled vagueness, his apparent inability to express a complete thought at times, often serves his purpose better than explicit threats would. Members of his party might have to actually say something against him if he genuinely threatened that he’d use the military or the police or a group of violent supporters to maintain his grip on power. So he won’t say that explicitly. But he’ll plant the seed of the idea — enough to provoke and inspire fear, but not enough to earn condemnation.
Lawrence O’Donnell, another MSNBC host, responded to Hayes’ comment by arguing that Trump’s remarks seem to be more a “hope” than a threat.
“Trump’s supporters aren’t as bad & violent & criminal as he hopes they are,” he said. “They peacefully watched President Obama inaugurated twice. They’ll do that again for the next Democrat. Let’s not help him fan his imaginary flame.”
Others have been critical of the idea that Trump is slouching toward authoritarianism, pointing out that he’s actually a particularly weak leader. His defeat in the Senate on Thursday, for example, showed that he has much less control over elected members of his own party than he might hope for.
But Trump’s weakness is not a counterpoint to his authoritarian streak. In fact, it may be a necessary condition of it. If Trump were a powerful leader within Democratic strictures, maintaining the ability to convince lawmakers and voters to support his agenda and expertly overcoming legal objections, he’d have no need to resort to authoritarian measures like the exploitation of the National Emergencies Act to seize funds for a border wall.
It’s when he’s at his weakest — when his party abandons him, when the rule of law threatens to maintain him — that he’s most likely to lash out and break the bonds of normal democratic governance. That’s when his off-hand suggestions of violence and his dismissal of the legitimacy of any opposition become truly scary.