Cornered Trump turns to implied threats of violence: How worried should we be?

Unable to mount any legitimate defense, Trump drops dark hints of "civil war" to fight impeachment with fear

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published October 1, 2019 1:00PM (EDT)

Donald Trump and Ukraine President phone call (Getty Images/Salon)
Donald Trump and Ukraine President phone call (Getty Images/Salon)

Donald Trump, frantic that Democrats are finally going to hold an impeachment inquiry that looks seriously at the vast criminal conspiracy in and around the White House, has quickly escalated his rhetoric to thinly veiled threats of violence.

Last week, during a private meeting with staffers, Trump threatened the whistleblower who filed a complaint accusing Trump of trying to extort the Ukrainian government into manufacturing evidence for a couple of his unhinged conspiracy theories. The president complained that whistleblowing was akin to "spies and treason," and that "we used to handle it a little differently than we do now," obviously implying execution.

On Sunday, under the guise of a "warning," Trump, quoting right-wing evangelical pastor Robert Jeffress, threatened "a Civil War like fracture in this Nation from which our Country will never heal".

Tuesday morning, in a pinned tweet, Trump backed up the Civil War threat with what is supposed to be an intimidating image:

The president seems to have swiped that image from one of his interchangeable daughters-in-law, who was met with a response from historian Kevin Kruse, pointing out that Nixon's electoral map was even more drenched in red and that he was driven to resign anyway.

In any case, these red-heavy maps are deceptive, if the point is to make it seem like Republicans are popular. After all, despite the president's repeated claims of voter fraud, Hillary Clinton netted nearly 3 million more votes than Trump in the 2016 election. Those maps don't reflect actual numbers, but simply the fact that most Americans live in metropolitan areas, and that low-density rural and exurban areas lean Republican.

But given all the other violent insinuations, the aggressive language of the meme, and the fact that this all started when Trump and his lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, decided to play at being mobsters shaking down foreign leaders, it's safe to say that the image is less an argument than a threat. Those of us who live in blue urban enclaves are meant to be quivering in our shoes at the danger presented to us by our well-armed and Trump-loving country cousins, who may not have the numbers to win an election fairly, but do have a lot of guns and pickup trucks.

It's kind of amusing that Trump can't decide if the cities are violent hellholes that should terrify the pants out of his Fox News-loving followers, or if they are full of soft-handed weenies who can't put up a fight. What is less amusing is that he has shown a clear tendency, since the beginning of his presidential campaign more than four years ago, to encourage his followers to commit acts of violence against liberals, whom he dehumanizes — especially if they're Jewish or people of color — by calling them "savages" or other epithets.

Sometimes Trump is mindful to establish plausible deniability, using insinuations of violence instead of direct statements, as he did in saying "we used to handle it a little differently" instead flat-out saying that the whistleblower should be tried for treason and shot. At other times, just to make sure people take his meaning, he's been more blunt, such as when he told followers to "knock the crap out of" protesters at a campaign rally.

Perhaps more importantly, Trump has a longstanding habit of encouraging to fringe groups who are known to seek street violence or commit terrorism. He has actively encouraged proto-fascist groups like Proud Boys by feeding their conspiracy theories about "antifa," which these groups then use to justify starting street brawls. He's continuously spread white nationalist propaganda painting immigrants as an "invasion" and even joyfully egged on a threat to murder immigrants. Unsurprisingly, there's been a rise in hate crimes against people perceived as immigrants or as helping immigrants, including the horrific mass shootings in Pittsburgh and El Paso. In addition, Trump's targeting of Democrats, liberal activists and the media directly inspired an attempted bombing campaign.

If confronted, Trump will of course deny that his implied threats are threats. But in light of this history, no one should be fooled. Trump has no argument against impeachment — his attempts to claim that his actions were justified are, legally, just more evidence of guilt — and all he has left is bullying and intimidation. Those are his favorite tools, of course, but he's also a coward who has to hide behind implied threats and the hope that his followers will get the hint.

To be clear, despite the long history of far-right figures threatening civil war, there's very little chance of that. Trump's America may be heavily armed, but they are also old. Trump won the majority of voters over 45 in 2016, but Clinton got most voters younger than that. When it comes to the hardcore base of Fox News addicts, the age issue becomes more pronounced: The median age of that network's viewers is 66. Plus, as Trump's map actually shows, they're diffuse. Organizing an army of Medicare-age white people who are thinly spread across the country is not something Trump can plausibly do. He can't even seem to organize a coherent defense against impeachment inside the White House.

That doesn't mean this rhetoric is harmless. Instead, the real danger isn't "civil war" but terrorism, as we've seen with the El Paso shooter and the "MAGA bomber," both clearly inspired by Trump's rhetoric.

Disturbingly, Trump's instinct to turn making every political fight into a reality TV-style personality clash means that he's been grasping for individual faces he can offer to his followers as villains in his mendacious narrative of victimization. He has specifically singled out House Intelligence Committee chair Adam Schiff, D-Calif., and Judiciary Committee chair Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., as well as the four freshman members of "the Squad," all women of color and preferred hate objects of Fox News. He's also focused in on the unknown whistleblower, whose identity is currently protected but who may not stay anonymous for long.

This entire situation shows why, even beyond the existing corruption, Trump's contempt for the rule of law and lack of basic human decency is a serious problem. Like the mobsters he was emulating when he and Giuliani concocted their shakedown scheme against the Ukrainian government, Trump sees violence as a backstop solution whenever events threaten to turn against him. Lawlessness and criminality are tied to violence for obvious reasons, and just because this particular gangster is in the Oval Office doesn't mean that rule no longer applies.

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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