“So those legs — those legs, they’ve gotten very thin,” Trump said. “Not a lot of base.”
He continued, drawing his words out carefully and slowly. “You wouldn’t have to close,” he said, holding up a clenched fist and then releasing it, “you wouldn’t have to close the fi-.”
In a similar riff the day before, Trump’s sentiment was even clearer, though he again suggestively trailed off at the end: “A slight slap. You don’t have to close — even close your fist.”
Before, during and after these words, Trump made a point to note that it was once Biden who remarked on a physical confrontation with Trump. Four years ago, after the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape in which Trump described sexually assaulting women, Biden spoke about taking Trump “behind the gym” over the comments. Biden, though, set the scene at a time when they would have been in high school; Trump was talking about the present day, when both are grown men vying for the presidency. Whatever one thinks about Biden’s 2016 comments, Trump was upping the ante — and at a fraught time in our nation.
That was hardly Trump’s only nod to violence and general unrest in the closing days of the campaign. A president who has repeatedly spoken in subtle — and often far-less-subtle — ways about violent acts by supporters and suggestively alluded to politically fueled post-election turmoil has made both a fixture of his final campaign pitch.
The biggest examples this weekend were Trump’s repeated expressions of support for a caravan of Trump flag-waving vehicles that surrounded a Biden campaign bus in Texas. The intimidating scene resulted in one collision and is under investigation by the FBI, with people on the Biden bus calling 911 and Biden’s team accusing the Trump supporters of trying to run them off the road. A rally was called off as a result.
Trump tweeted video of it all Saturday, saying, “I LOVE TEXAS,” then he followed that up Sunday with a more explicit endorsement.
“In my opinion, these patriots did nothing wrong,” Trump said.
Trump also played up the scene at his rallies Sunday, thickly suggesting that his supporters were merely “protecting” or “escorting” the bus.
“They were protecting his bus yesterday, because they’re nice,” he said at one rally. In Florida, he added: “They were riding along a highway, and you had Sleepy Joe’s bus. So they escorted the bus, and the radical left said, ‘Oh, what a horrible thing that is to escort the bus.’ ”
The effort was a pretty apparent attempt at intimidation, at the very least — one that resulted in the bus having to slow down substantially on a highway. Whether any laws were broken isn’t yet determined, but there was clear danger in what transpired, as video and photos of a truck hitting a car showed.
Despite that and the FBI investigation, though, at least one Republican who once expressed concern about Trump fomenting violence decided he was on board. Speaking at the Florida rally, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said: “We love what they did. But here’s the thing they don’t know: We do that in Florida every day.”
Four years ago, Rubio attacked Trump for his “reckless and dangerous” rhetoric, which he said contributed to violence at Trump’s rallies.
Trump this weekend also re-upped his long-running allusions to unrest after the election, saying there would be “bedlam” if the result is drawn out as states count mail ballots in the days after the election. Trump was responding to a Supreme Court decision that allowed ballots received after Election Day but sent by then to be counted.
“We’re going to be waiting,” Trump said. “November 3 is going to come and go, and we’re not gonna know, and you’re gonna have bedlam in our country, and you’re gonna have this period of nine days, or seven days, or whatever it is, and many bad things. Ballots are gonna be, ‘Oh, we just found 10,000 ballots.’ Oh, that’s good. ‘We just found another 10,000.’ This is a horrible thing that the United States Supreme Court has done to our country.”
Trump has also for weeks used a potentially suggestive word to describe Biden’s mental state, repeatedly referring to the idea that he’s “shot” — which critics suggest is a deliberate double entendre. At one point last week, he referred to the idea of Kamala D. Harris taking over, saying, “Three weeks in, Joe’s shot. Let’s go, Kamala, you ready?”
And Trump last week also lightheartedly suggested that his supporters might attack people at a rally in Tampa, who were spraying water on the crowd, apparently not immediately realizing that it was meant to cool the crowd on a hot day.
“I said, ‘Where the hell is that coming from?' ” Trump said. “They may be doing that on purpose. Let’s find out if they’re friend or foe, and if they’re foe, let’s take care of those son-of-a-bitches.”
It was the kind of comment that has characterized Trump’s allusions to violence. They’re often playful and have plenty of plausible deniability built into them. His references to post-election unrest are never explicitly urging people to engage in it but, rather, a suggestion that maybe — possibly, perhaps — this thing could happen if his supporters feel they have been wronged by the process.
But he has also consistently fed into that persecution complex, even saying that the election would be stolen before it really began using nonsensical claims about widespread voter fraud. And Trump’s track record on this kind of rhetoric is unmistakable, to the point where it’s abundantly clear he knows what he’s doing. (Think: Trump in May retweeting a video in which a supporter says, “The only good Democrat is a dead Democrat,” and following that up by saying, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”)
And whether any of the particular comments are seen as objectionable, the country is a powder keg right now. Places like Washington, D.C., and other major cities are boarding up in anticipation of what comes after Election Day. It’s against that backdrop that Trump is encouraging supporters who surrounded his opponent’s bus and otherwise nodding to people taking matters into their own hands, outside the electoral process.
As Rubio once said back when he called such rhetoric “reckless”: “Leaders cannot say whatever they want, because words have consequences. They lead to actions that others take. And when the person you’re supporting for president is going around and saying things like, ‘Go ahead and slap them around, I’ll pay your legal fees,’ what do you think’s going to happen next?”