It was then that he was interrupted by a woman in the crowd. “Shoot them!” she yelled.
The president found this funny, as did his audience. “That’s only in the Panhandle you can get away with that stuff.” He stopped for a moment to take in the crowd’s roaring approval. “Only in the Panhandle!” he repeated.
It is worth pausing on the choice that was available to the president at that moment. Trump was faced by a person in the crowd who argued for the murder of immigrants. He could have, in the manner of John McCain, used a foul moment to teach a lesson about the moral necessity of nonviolence and rhetorical restraint. But he is in many ways McCain’s characterological opposite, and so he encouraged—in the greasy, joking-not-joking style he has perfected—the normalization of violence.
This most recent phase of the Trump presidency is the most dangerous so far. He has, of course, encouraged violence, or suggested its efficacy, on many occasions in the past. In March, in an interview with Breitbart News, he made it plain that he was sympathetic to those of his supporters who might feel compelled to become violent on his behalf. “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.” And he has spoken about the press in such a way as to possibly stimulate thoughts of violence among his more fervent adherents.
But in this latest phase, his rhetoric has become particularly sweeping. Brown people in general have become his targets. And there is no reason to hope that he will reform. His followers reward his radicalism, and his handlers are among the most cynical figures in American political history. His aide Kellyanne Conway tweeted on Sunday, “Working as one to understand depraved evil & to eradicate hate is everyone’s duty. Unity. Let’s do this.” And his daughter Ivanka wrote, in a way that hints at a permanent separation from reality, “White supremacy, like all other forms of terrorism, is an evil that must be destroyed.” And, of course, there is no one of any influence in his party who is willing to confront him.
I watched the video recording of the rally in Panama City shortly after reading the El Paso killer’s so-called manifesto. It is a document littered with phrases and rhetorical devices injected into mainstream discourse by the president and his supporters—talk of a “Hispanic invasion,” accusations that Democrats support “open borders,” and the like. As Trump faces the possibility that he will lose the presidency next year, he may become more enraged, and more willing to deploy the rhetoric of violence as a way to keep his followers properly motivated. The Panama City speech was an important moment in Trump’s ongoing effort to make the American presidency a vehicle in the cause of marginalizing and frightening racial minorities; the killings are a possible (and predictable) consequence of such rhetoric.