A day after dutifully reading a policy address to a bunch of people in suits, Donald Trump returned yesterday to his more comfortable oeuvre, the stream-of-consciousness speech delivered to his supporters. And inevitably, he said something that made journalists rewind their DVRs and Democrats leap excitedly out of their chairs. Is it possible that Trump is being treated unfairly, that we jump on every little thing he says and twist his words, making a big deal out of nothing? Sure it is. That has happened before. But in this case, the criticisms are legitimate, because this isn’t just a silly “gaffe” of the kind we waste so much time on.
I’ll explain why in a moment, but for the sake of accuracy, let’s look at his full quote:
Hillary wants to abolish, essentially abolish the Second Amendment. By the way, and if she gets to pick — if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know. But I’ll tell you what, that will be a horrible day. If, if Hillary gets to put her judges — right now we’re tied. You see what’s going on. We’re tied, ’cause Scalia, this was not supposed to happen. Justice Scalia was supposed to be around for ten more years at least, and this is what happens. That was a horrible thing. So now look at it. So Hillary essentially wants to abolish the Second Amendment.
Donald Trump is not a very articulate man. So when Democrats expressed their outrage over this quote, he and his campaign could have said that while it’s understandable that some people could have interpreted his words to mean that he was encouraging gun owners to either assassinate Hillary Clinton or assassinate the judges she appoints if she becomes president, he didn’t intend to say anything of the sort.
But instead of just acknowledging that the words got a little garbled, which can happen to anybody, Trump claimed that the words themselves were a perfect expression of his intent, which was to encourage people to vote in order to protect gun rights. “There can be no other interpretation. Even reporters have told me. I mean, give me a break,” he told Sean Hannity last night. He tweeted, “I said pro-2A citizens must organize and get out vote to save our Constitution!” — which is simply false. Perhaps he wishes he had said that, but it’s not remotely what he actually said.
But should we actually care? The answer is yes, for a couple of reasons. First, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that this is all in the service of a ridiculous lie Trump repeats every time he discusses the issue of guns. He’ll always say some version of “Hillary Clinton wants to take your guns away and she wants to abolish the Second Amendment” (yes, that’s a quote), when the truth is that Clinton has never proposed repealing the Second Amendment, nor has she ever proposed some kind of grand gun confiscation. You can read her position on this issue here, but it comes down to expanded background checks, a new assault-weapons ban, and a couple of other relatively minor things. You can disagree with her on the particulars, but it’s not abolishing the Second Amendment; whenever she is asked about it, she says that reasonable restrictions are not incompatible with a constitutional right to bear arms, which is what all but the most radical gun extremists agree on, and what even the conservatives on the Supreme Court have always held.
The second reason the criticism of Trump’s statement is legitimate is that he himself demands that his opponent be held to a ludicrously high standard of accountability for every syllable that passes her lips, and some that even don’t pass her lips. For example, on Monday in his speech to the Detroit Economic Club, Trump said that Clinton “accidentally told the truth and said she wanted to raise taxes on the middle class.” This wasn’t off-the-cuff, mind you — it was in Trump’s prepared text. What was he referring to? A speech last week in which Clinton said “We aren’t going to raise taxes on the middle class,” something she has said approximately a zillion times before, but in some video feeds of the speech, the “aren’t” sounds a little slurred so you might hear it as “are.” But Trump just claims that she actually said “are” and has thus revealed her secret desire to raise middle-class taxes (PolitiFact gave him a “Pants on Fire” for that one).
But most important, the reason Trump doesn’t get a pass on hinting that violence against politicians or judges is an appropriate response to an imagined threat to gun rights is that there’s a context in which this statement comes, a context created by gun advocates, by other Republicans, and by Trump himself.
A candidate who tells his supporters that if they see protesters, “Knock the crap out of ’em,” or who says about one, “I’d like to punch him in the face” isn’t going to get the benefit of the doubt when it comes to advocating violence, and that’s no one’s fault but his. And Republicans at all levels frequently argue that one of the primary purposes of owning guns is so that you can use them to kill representatives of the government, whether police or soldiers, when they become too tyrannical. As Ed Kilgore reminds us, “During her successful Senate campaign in 2014, rising GOP star Joni Ernst of Iowa used to happily talk about the ‘beautiful little Smith & Wesson’ she carried with every intention of using it to defend herself and her family from ‘government, should they decide that my rights are no longer important.’ ” And she was hardly the first — we hear that kind of thing from Republicans all the time.
Now combine that with the NRA’s constant warnings that if Democrats win the next election they’re coming to confiscate your guns, and everybody knows exactly what Trump was saying.
His defense — that he was only encouraging people to vote — is utterly nonsensical. Remember that he said, “if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know.” He was talking about what the “Second Amendment people” might be able to do about Clinton picking judges, which happens after she has already been elected.
Finally, this comes after Trump has been trying to delegitimize the results of the election before it actually happens, claiming that the vote will be “rigged.” If you’re arguing to your angry, heavily armed supporters, who already think the federal government is tyrannical, that there’s a conspiracy afoot to steal the election and that your opponent will be sending jackbooted government thugs to confiscate their guns, you don’t get to pretend that when you say that the “Second Amendment people” might be able to stop the next president’s judges from subverting their gun rights that it’s all innocent and you would never contemplate something as irresponsible as encouraging violence.
I’ve long been critical of coverage that focuses on “gaffes.” Usually, when candidates say something like “You didn’t build that” or that 47 percent of Americans are dependent on government and think they’re victims, we’re supposed to believe that they’ve let their mask slip and revealed their true and sinister selves, which is almost always an absurd claim. But that’s not what we’re talking about here. It doesn’t matter whether Trump really believes that people should use their guns against the federal government if it enacts policies they don’t like. What matters is that he’s encouraging them to think they should, just like he’s encouraging them not to accept the results of the election if their favored candidate doesn’t win. That’s what so malignant, and that’s what he should answer for.