In an interview with Breitbart News, President Trump said this:
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.
The context here is a bit convoluted. Trump and his interviewer were lamenting that congressional GOP leaders supposedly didn’t let Trump’s loyalists use subpoena power to go after “the left” when the GOP held the majority.
Then Trump was asked about the tactics Democrats are using now that they’re in the House majority, and that led Trump to launch into that quote. Let me isolate the key part of it for you:
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.
It would be very bad, very bad.
First, take Trump’s declaration that he has the support of the police and the military. Read in the most charitable way, Trump could merely mean that people in those groups tend to support him as individuals, not that he wants them to think of themselves as belonging to institutions that support him.
There’s no particular reason to give Trump the benefit of the doubt on this. But even if he did intend it in this somewhat less disgusting way, he’s still saying that the ranks of his armed supporters could at some point feel provoked to violence. He doesn’t say they should feel provoked, but merely that they might feel provoked under certain conditions.
This allows Trump to plausibly claim that he isn’t endorsing that outcome or openly inciting it; why, he’s merely observing what’s possible. And it would be very bad, very bad if that did happen, let me tell you, so you’d better hope it doesn’t!
Also note that Trump isn’t saying one way or the other whether violence would be justified. Which means he’s dangling it out there that it might be. He certainly isn’t saying that it wouldn’t be.
This is a trick Trump has used before. In August 2016, you may recall, Trump got pilloried for saying this about Hillary Clinton:
Hillary wants to abolish — essentially abolish the Second Amendment. By the way, and if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. [Pause] Although the Second Amendment people — maybe there is, I don’t know. But I tell you what, that’ll be a horrible day.
Trump didn’t say gun owners should take matters into his own hands and engage in violent retaliation against Clinton if and when she tries to take their guns away. He merely suggested something might happen under those circumstances. And boy, oh boy, it would be very bad, very bad if it did, so by golly, you’d better hope that it doesn’t! Also, he’s here to tell them that Clinton would, in fact, try to take their guns away.
There is a long list of times in which Trump engaged in open, deliberate incitement to violence. We’re merely talking now about examples in which Trump was more subtle than usual.
As Aaron Blake suggests, this kind of rhetoric at least could “plant a seed” in his supporters’ minds that violence might reasonably occur, if they feel sufficiently “wronged by the political process.” And Trump regularly indulges in all kinds of lies about such wrongs, whether it’s spinning ludicrous fantasies about a deep state plot to reverse the election or telling his supporters that the media is the “enemy of the people.”
Along those lines, there’s one other point that gets lost at these moments, which is that Trump has repeatedly been put on notice that his rhetoric is leading to terrible consequences. Recall that remarkable conversation between Trump and New York Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger, in which Sulzberger urged Trump to understand that his attacks on the press — such as his “enemy of the people" claim — are emboldening “dictators and tyrants” to suppress the free and independent press in multiple other countries.
Informed of this fact, Trump said: “I’m not happy to hear that," and added that “I want to be” a defender of the free press. But he just can’t do this, as much as he’d like to, because the press keeps provoking his attacks by unfairly criticizing him.
Needless to say, since that conversation, Trump has kept right on attacking the media as the enemy of the people. Really, this is a very lamentable state of affairs. It’s really too bad that the press won’t stop making him do this.
Similarly, it would be just terrible if his supporters were incited to violence by conditions not of their own making. It would be very bad, very bad. We’d better hope that doesn’t happen.