Time To Worry

Brenton Tarrant, the alleged perpetrator of the New Zealand massacre of 50 Muslims.

The white supremacist allegedly responsible for the horrendous massacre of 50 Muslims at prayer in New Zealand cited President Donald Trump “as a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose” in his manifesto. Brenton Tarrant added that Trump failed “as a policy maker and leader,” but Tarrant clearly thought Trump emblematic of white supremacy. 

To say Donald Trump purveys violence and hate is to state the obvious. To be clear, linking Trump’s hateful rhetoric and encouragement of violence with a specific crime is not possible. The motives behind the New Zealand attack probably are a toxic stew of personal anger and a very confused ideology. The New Zealand authorities will sort out what led the shooter to act. 

Trump cannot be blamed for any particular attack. But, he can be held responsible for the upward trend in hate crimes. The president of the United States has the loudest megaphone in the world, and he often uses it to encourage violence and hate. Even when Trump condemns atrocious crimes, it is without feeling, merely appearing as a ritualistic reading of a script.

The number of extremist hate groups has increased in recent years.

The number of hate groups in the United States has risen during Trump’s presidency (though he denies any increase in white nationalism), as has the number of hate crimes. While some politically or ideologically motivated crimes have been perpetrated by individuals spouting a perverted leftwing doctrine — the attempted 2017 mass murder of House Republicans on a baseball field in Alexandria, Virginia, for example — most attacks come from the right. The heightened incidence of white-nationalist violence and the presence in the Oval Office of a self-proclaimed nationalist is more than a coincidence (“I’m a nationalist,” the president said last October).

Just days before the New Zealand atrocity, Trump suggested his supporters might resort to violence if politically thwarted. “You know, the left plays a tougher game, it’s very funny,” the president said in an interview with the right-wing internet site Breitbart. “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.”

Just what does the president mean by such a threat? Is he warning that if he loses reelection in 2020 he will use the military, backed up by law enforcement and citizens’ groups, to frustrate the popular will? This is not idle speculation: Remember that in the final presidential debate in October 2016 Trump refused to say he would accept the results. “I will look at it at the time,” candidate Trump said. Of course, then, Trump had no power. He might have been able to incite some of his more ardent supporters to sporadic acts of violence, but there was not much fear he could seize the levers of power. Now, however, he controls the armed forces. And, while there is no reason to believe the American military would obey orders to participate in an unconstitutional coup, the possibility of Trump attempting an extra-constitutional act remains real.

Candidate Donald Trump telling supporters in North Carolina how “Second Amendment people” might react if Hillary Clinton were to win the 2016 election.

Republicans who find Trump unappetizing but do not dare oppose him for fear of riling his supporters are fond of saying, “Take Trump seriously, but not literally.” That is nonsense. Trump has the bully pulpit, and his words do matter, literally. As do his tweets. Just this past weekend, the president worked himself into a dither, tweeting dozens of times, attacking autoworkers, Hillary Clinton (still), Democrats for trying to “steal a Presidential election,” the so-called “fake news media,” Fox News anchors (really), John McCain (who died seven months ago), the Russia investigation (of course), and a Saturday Night Live rerun. 

As this weekend’s tweet storm confirms, the United States is saddled with a president who is unstable, insecure, probably paranoid, definitely narcissistic. Coupling those traits with his penchant for violent rhetoric and his unwillingness to play by the law and the Constitution makes for a dangerous recipe. And, consider this: The president has every incentive to remain in office. As long as he is in the Oval Office, he cannot be indicted for his multifarious crimes, at least according to Justice Department guidelines. While that is a debatable contention, it appears to be the standard under which the numerous investigations of Trump are proceeding. Moreover, if he serves eight years, the statute of limitations on his culpability for directing Michael Cohen, his former personal lawyer, to pay off a pornstar prior to the 2016 election — a possible campaign finance law violation — expires. 

No one — probably not even Trump — knows what the president will do on January 20, 2021, if a Democrat is elected. But, we do know this: Trump is not shy about the rhetoric he employs, he does not avoid urging violence, and he is admired by some of the most unsavory groups on the planet, groups comprised of proponents of hate who are not afraid to act on their hatreds. Might he appeal to them to act violently to keep him in office? With the likes of Representative Steve King of Iowa recently posting a meme about a violent civil war, who knows? Frankly, I am scared.

Posted March 19, 2019

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