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Trump again nods toward violence by his supporters — and maybe something bigger

President Trump speaks during a rally in Springfield, Mo. (Neeta Satam/Bloomberg News)

No matter what the White House says, President Trump has repeatedly and not-subtly suggested his supporters could be violent — sometimes in an approving manner. And there’s a common thread running through much of it: Again and again, Trump has suggested they could rise up if they feel either they or Trump have been wronged by the political process.

There are several examples. The most well-worn was when Trump suggested during the 2016 campaign that “Second Amendment people” could stop a President Hillary Clinton from installing liberal judges. Trump played it off as a coincidence unrelated to violence that he flagged gun-rights supporters as the last line of defense against a political outcome he opposed.

Now, Trump is at it again. And this time, his statement has overtones of something bigger.

In an interview with Trump-friendly Breitbart News this week, Trump talked about how “tough” the left was getting, relative to his supporters. His quote meanders a little bit, but stick with it and focus on the text in bold:

It’s so terrible what’s happening. 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.

As The Washington Post’s David Nakamura pointed out, this is actually quite similar to something Trump said at a September campaign rally for now-Sen. Josh Hawley (R) in Missouri:

They’re so lucky that we’re peaceful. Law enforcement, military, construction workers, Bikers for Trump -- how about Bikers for Trump? They travel all over the country. They got Trump all over the place, and they’re great. They’ve been great. But these are tough people. These are great people. But they’re peaceful people, and Antifa and all -- they’d better hope they stay that way. I hope they stay that way. I hope they stay that way.

Trump’s public comments are often more strategic than his critics give him credit for. He will routinely suggest something without technically saying, “This is what I want.” And he will generally lather himself in plausible deniability. “It would be very bad” and “I hope they stay that way” allow him to say he doesn’t actually want this thing he’s hinting at to happen.

But it’s clear from these comments, and the repetition of this formula, that he’s suggesting his supporters from the military, law enforcement and even bikers could be tempted to rise up if things don’t go Trump’s way. He’s at the very least toying with the idea that things could become violent.

A BBC journalist was attacked at a Trump rally in El Paso on Feb. 11. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post)

And his inclusion of the police and the military is conspicuous. Remember a few weeks ago when his former personal attorney Michael Cohen was testifying before a House committee, Cohen said at the end of his testimony that he decided to speak out against Trump because he feared that if Trump lost the 2020 election, he wouldn’t leave. Experts rightly point out that any successful Trump effort to actually stay in office would probably require the complicity of the military, what would essentially be a coup. That’s nearly impossible to imagine.

(The inclusion of bikers is also interesting — and timely. As The Post wrote last week, motorcycle gangs known as “colectivos” have served as enforcers for embattled Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. That, of course, wouldn’t explain why Trump included bikers when he said this in September.)

But even if a coup seems patently ridiculous, that doesn’t mean there couldn’t be unrest, and it doesn’t mean that Trump isn’t proactively wielding that possibility for leverage against his opponents. Hinting that efforts to remove him from office — either via the 2020 election or impeachment — could be met with this kind of violence serves notice to his foes that they better play nice . . . and maybe investigators should back off.

The idea that anything like the scenes Trump is describing would ever happen is difficult to believe. But that’s not really the point. Musing about this kind of thing is a great way to plant a seed in certain people’s minds, and the fact that Trump keeps fertilizing that seed shouldn’t escape notice.