The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘The only good Democrat is a dead Democrat.' ‘When the looting starts, the shooting starts.’ Twice in 25 hours, Trump tweets conspicuous allusions to violence.

The Trump campaign’s version of the story illustrates a successful — and often inaccurate — picture of the president's response to the coronavirus pandemic. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Atthar Mirza/The Washington Post)

At 12 a.m. Thursday, President Trump retweeted a video in which a supporter says, “The only good Democrat is a dead Democrat.”

At 12:53 a.m. Friday, he followed this up by referring to riots in Minneapolis and saying, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

This is all apparently part of one big misunderstanding about Trump actually advocating violence — one that for some reason keeps happening over and over again.

If there were ever a tweet tailor-made for promotion by President Trump, it might be the first one. In the video, the supporter, a county commissioner in New Mexico, offers the above quote but quickly qualifies that he was not speaking literally. The president felt this was the kind of message that people needed to see. “Thank you Cowboys. See you in New Mexico!” he said in a retweet.

Likewise, the Friday morning tweet will undoubtedly be explained as Trump not actually calling for the shooting of looters, but as an allusion to the kind of violence it can create. Regardless, Twitter has flagged the tweet for “glorifying violence.” And a later tweet from the White House’s official account quoting Trump’s tweet has also been flagged.

Update: Sure enough, this is the defense Trump is now offering.

It’s an entirely predictable exercise, because it somehow has happened throughout Trump’s presidency. He tweets or says something alluding to violence while reserving some plausible deniability. But the exercise is completely conspicuous — as evidenced by the tweets less than 25 hours apart.

Early in the 2016 election, Trump downplayed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s killing of journalists by saying the United States kills people, too. He would later repeatedly and conspicuously allude to the idea that he himself would kill journalists — while making sure to dismiss it.

“And then they said, you know, [Putin has] killed reporters, and I don’t like that. I’m totally against that,” Trump said. “By the way, I hate some of these people, but I’d never kill him. I hate them. No, I think — no, these people, honestly — I’ll be honest, I’ll be honest. I would never kill them. I would never do that.”

Trump then jokingly suggested he might reconsider. “Uh, let’s see. Meh?” he said. “No, I wouldn’t. I would never kill them.”

(Trump during a meeting with Putin in 2019 would seemingly return to this idea, saying “Get rid of them” about journalists he didn’t like and adding, “You don’t have this problem in Russia.”)

Later in the 2016 campaign, Trump obliquely referred to the prospect of an armed uprising against Hillary Clinton’s judicial picks, saying there would be nothing you could do about them — “Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is. I don’t know.”

In 2019 at a rally, Trump asked what could be done about immigrants crossing the border illegally, to which one rallygoer responded, “Shoot them.” Trump replied, “That’s only in the Panhandle can you get away with that statement.”

After the tragedy in Charlottesville in 2017, Trump retweeted and then deleted a video depicting a train running over a CNN reporter.

In 2019, Trump also toyed with the idea of the military, police and Bikers for Trump getting violent with Antifa. “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.” He offered similar comments at a rally in Missouri, saying: “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.”

Similar to the most recent example, Trump in 2017 suggested police might get rougher while apprehending suspected criminals.

“When you see these towns, and when you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon, you just see them thrown in — rough — I said, ‘Please don’t be too nice,’” Trump said. “Like when you guys put somebody in the car, and you’re protecting their head, you know? The way you put your hand — like, don’t hit their head, and they’ve just killed somebody? Don’t hit their head? I said, ‘You can take the hand away, okay.’”

The most recent examples of this are particularly telling, both because of their proximity and how blatant they are.

In the case of the tweet about looters in Minneapolis, Trump’s quote has clear historical connotations. As The Post’s Retropolis has reported, the phrase traces back to a Miami police chief who uttered it during riots following police mistreatment of a teenager. The same police chief, Walter Headley, also said, “We don’t mind being accused of police brutality.”

‘When the looting starts, the shooting starts’: Trump quotes Miami police chief’s notorious 1967 warning

In the case of the New Mexico county commissioner, while he said he wasn’t being literal, he went on to talk about an uprising if Democrats win the election and floated the idea of execution for Democratic lawmakers who he said might have committed treason. “You get to pick your poison: You either go before a firing squad, or you get the end of the rope,” the commissioner, Couy Griffin, said this week.

The comments were disavowed by the New Mexico Republican Party and Young Republicans of New Mexico.

It’s exactly the kind of thing Trump does: He’s saying this thing, but he’s also saying that he’s not really saying this thing, and it’s your fault for misinterpreting. Plenty of people will believe these musing are being exaggerated and taken out of context, but the thrust of all of them is unmistakable and consistent. It’s like that old, stereotypical mafia expression, “It’d be a shame if something happened to XYZ.”

It’s the same trick Griffin played in the video, and it’s the kind of rhetoric that, however hedged, is clearly purposeful and part of a long-running calculation.

As I wrote after the bikers comment:

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.

This post has been updated with Trump’s most recent tweet.