As Donald Trump’s campaign has pivoted from stupid to unhinged, there have been growing concerns that his supporters will take an ugly, violent turn. Trump’s baseless but persistent questioning of the integrity of the election process offers an opening for his supporters to consider extralegal means of resisting his defeat at the ballot box. “Extralegal” is a fancy term for taking violent action. Trump’s rhetoric could find a receptive audience among his angriest supporters.
As Trump’s chances of winning have faded, this scenario has become a more prominent topic of conversation. Commentators like Sarah Kendzior have been warning about this scenario for quite some time. The Independent videotaped a Trump supporter warning that “Hillary needs to be taken out” if she is elected and offering his services for the job. Over the weekend, the Boston Globe’s Matt Viser and Tracy Jan offered up a disturbing story about the plans of Trump supporters in Ohio:
If Trump doesn’t win, some are even openly talking about violent rebellion and assassination, as fantastical and unhinged as that may seem.
“If she’s in office, I hope we can start a coup. She should be in prison or shot. That’s how I feel about it,” Dan Bowman, a 50-year-old contractor, said of Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee. “We’re going to have a revolution and take them out of office if that’s what it takes. There’s going to be a lot of bloodshed. But that’s what it’s going to take . . . I would do whatever I can for my country.”
He then placed a Trump mask on his face and posed for pictures. . . .
His supporters are heeding the call [to monitor the polls]. “Trump said to watch your precincts. I’m going to go, for sure,” said Steve Webb, a 61-year-old carpenter from Fairfield, Ohio.
“I’ll look for . . . well, it’s called racial profiling. Mexicans. Syrians. People who can’t speak American,” he said. “I’m going to go right up behind them. I’ll do everything legally. I want to see if they are accountable. I’m not going to do anything illegal. I’m going to make them a little bit nervous.”
And if that doesn’t concern you, my Post colleague Dana Milbank filed a similar story from a Colorado Springs rally with similar quotes from Trump supporters:
So what happens if Clinton is declared the winner? “Donald Trump is going to holler fraud if he doesn’t win,” figured [Trump volunteer Gerald] Miller, who is white and says he has PTSD from “racial violence” he suffered in the military. “I think we’re on the verge of a civil war, a racial war. This could be the spark that sets it off.”
I fear Miller may be right.
So, yeah, this is pretty concerning!! But I want to take a moment to suggest that maybe, just maybe, the mainstream media might be exaggerating the probability of this kind of violence occurring on or after Election Day.
The first thing to consider is that it only takes a few crazy people to provide choice quotes to fan these kinds of fears. For example, the Dan Bowman quoted in the Boston Globe story is the same guy who appears in the Independent’s video. So one guy managed to proffer enough incendiary quotes to fuel two news cycles.
That’s just an anecdote, but it feeds into a deeper selection effects issue. The reporters and commentators fretting about electoral violence are primarily basing such fears on two sources of data: Trump’s online, alt-right supporters, and the fans attending his rallies. But I’m not sure these are the most reliable data sources. Sure, these represent Trump’s most rabid supporters. But it’s much easier to sound or act crazy in these forums than to actually commit violent acts outside of those arenas. Unfortunately, it’s easy to threaten violence anonymously on Twitter; that doesn’t mean these people will actually take violent action. The mob mentality of Trump rallies can be ugly, but the prospect of electoral violence requires people to act outside of the mob without much in the way of coordination. That’s a higher barrier to extralegal action, and I’m not sure most Trump supporters are interested in clearing it.
The second thing to consider is that this is a Donald Trump operation. Whatever Trump promises, remember that the hype will always far exceed the reality. Trump’s entire business career is predicated on his ability to monetize “truthful hyperbole” and then move on to the next scam. Remember when Trump threatened to sue the New York Times for libel after the Gray Lady ran a story about Trump’s alleged sexual assaults on multiple women? Remember when the Times told Trump’s lawyers to bring it on? Remember how Trump’s lawyers then filed their lawsuit — oh, wait, that last thing didn’t happen, because it’s never going to happen, because Trump would lose.
There are excellent reasons to believe that a campaign that is starved of money and can’t organize its way out of a paper bag will have difficulty inspiring supporters to take proactive steps of any kind. And, sure enough, the New York Times’s Trip Gabriel reports today that Trump’s efforts to spur his supporters to volunteer to be poll monitors ain’t working out terribly well:
But as Mr. Trump casts doubt on the integrity of the presidential election, there are no signs of a wave of Trump poll watchers building. Like much else about his campaign, his call to “get everybody to go out and watch” the polls seems to be a Potemkin effort, with little or no organization behind it. . . .
“There’s a real disconnect between the intensity of the buzz at the national level and anything we’ve seen on the ground,” said Al Schmidt, a Republican who is the vice chairman of Philadelphia’s election board. “We haven’t received a single call from somebody outside of Philadelphia looking to be a poll watcher.” . ..
Even though Mr. Trump’s website includes a form to sign up as a poll watcher and “help me stop Crooked Hillary from rigging this election,” local officials in battleground states said they had seen no surge by Trump supporters seeking to be certified poll watchers.
“The numbers this year are on par with the numbers we saw in 2012,” said Katie Eagan, the executive director of the Ohio Republican Party, which is handling the appointment of poll watchers for the Trump campaign throughout the state.
Look, I’m not saying the fears of election violence are completely groundless. It only takes a few Dan Bowmans to decide to act on their rhetoric and violence will happen. It’s definitely a concern. But I’d suggest that, as Trump continues to crater in the polls, there are far fewer Trump supporters prepared to take violent action than the media is reporting.
At least, I hope this is the case.