President Trump has spent the past 18 months employing the megaphone and power of the presidency to actively, concertedly and deliberately incite civil and racial conflict on as many fronts as possible. Now he wants us to believe he is working to bring the country together.
Or, let me amend that: It’s not even clear that Trump does want us to believe this. Yes, he’s making unifying noises in the wake of an apparent wave of attempted terrorist bombings directed at Democrats and the media. But he sometimes seems to be winking at his supporters — and, indeed, he has punctuated these remarks with more of the same old incitement directed at those very same targets.
Any acts or threats of political violence are an attack on our democracy itself. … Those engaged in the political arena must stop treating political opponents as morally defective. … No one should carelessly compare political opponents to historical villains. … We should not mob people in public spaces or destroy public property.
There is one way to settle our disagreements. It’s called, “peacefully, at the ballot box.” As part of a larger national effort to bridge our divides and bring people together, the media also has a responsibility to set a civil tone and to stop the endless hostility and constant negative and oftentimes false attacks. … What we cannot do is let our differences about policy tear us apart as a country, can’t do that. We must accept the verdicts of elections.
It’s good as far as it goes that Trump said some of these things. But here’s the problem with his declaration that our differences should be settled peacefully via elections, whose verdict we must accept: Trump himself has repeatedly told his supporters the opposite — that they should not accept the verdict of elections. And he continues to do so today.
During the 2016 campaign, Trump relentlessly pushed the lie that widespread voter fraud would mar the election’s outcome. But Trump went substantially further than this: He repeatedly and explicitly declared that the results would be legitimate only if he won.
In my new book, “An Uncivil War,” I recount this story and its larger implications, noting that Trump “repeatedly cast doubt on the integrity of our political system” in an “effort to delegitimize a loss — in advance.” Trump, of course, won that election. But the key point here is that, when he thought he was going to lose, he told his supporters that they must not accept that outcome.
The line between falsely claiming widespread voter fraud, and telling your supporters not to accept an electoral loss as legitimate, is blurry to begin with. Republicans, of course, have long done the former. But, crucially, Trump blurred that line further. Trump has kept up a repurposed version of this from the White House. His repeated lie that he won the popular vote but for millions of illegal votes, and his calls for criminal prosecution of Hillary Clinton — the “lock her up” chants appeared again Wednesday night — are both just another way of saying the political opposition is fundamentally illegitimate.
That opposition is preparing to vote in the coming election, and so Trump is again warning of widespread (fictitious) voter fraud. (Note that Trump again attacked the “mobs” Wednesday night as well.) Given Trump’s track record, it’s obvious he is not only encouraging voter suppression in places such as Georgia and North Dakota; he’s once again moving in advance to cast a possible loss as illegitimate. Indeed, Carl Bernstein reports that Trump is preparing to do exactly that. That blurry line is disappearing entirely.
Heads in the sand
There appears to be a resolute refusal in some quarters to forthrightly confront what we’re dealing with here. After a pipe bomb was sent to CNN, the network’s president put out a statement lamenting a “complete lack of understanding” at the White House about the “seriousness” of Trump’s attacks on the media, as if the problem is that he is just clueless about the impact of those attacks.
Look at how Trump just responded to this, with another assault on a news organization for reporting on his mistreatment of classified information (he should not be held accountable for such conduct, but his chief political foe should), and also with this:
This says it all. Trump, who has waged a systematic campaign of relentless lies and delegitimizing attacks designed to destroy shared facts and obliterate public faith in the press’s institutional role in our democracy, is now blaming the media for an assassination attempt against it. Don’t forget: After a man threatened to murder newspaper employees while using language identical to Trump’s, the president kept up the attacks.
Trump recognizes zero institutional responsibility to use the power of the presidency to calm the country at critical moments such as these. This is why his tone takes on a forced quality when he makes unifying noises, as it did Wednesday night, and why those noises immediately give way to a reassertion of his ugliest instincts. After apologizing for blaming “many sides” for white-supremacist murder, Trump decided that made him “look weak” — after which he reverted to his original “many sides” formulation, again stoking racial tensions rather than calming them.
Trump incites civil and racial conflict on as many fronts as possible deliberately, because he believes he politically thrives off of it. The “many sides” comment, the pardoning of racist Joe Arpaio, the attacks on prominent African American athletes for protesting racism — in all these cases, it has been confirmed through reporting that Trump believed doing these things would please his white minority base. Trump concluded the same about one of his cruelest policies, reportedly claiming of child separations that “my people love it.”
Now Trump is madly hyping the desperate and destitute migrants making their way north as a national emergency, stoking bigotry and xenophobia as an answer to the deep unpopularity of his embrace of orthodox GOP plutocracy.
Yet reporters wonder aloud if Democrats will “go low” to counter Trump’s “insults,” as if saying mean stuff is all Trump is doing. Democrats such as Joe Biden are lamenting our “division,” as if that merely floated down from the heavens and settled across our land.
Trump wants us to be at war with one another. How many different ways does he have to say this before we believe him?