The current, and (to date) most debased, phase of the Trump presidency—the phase that includes the unceasing demonization of minority legislators and the endorsement of North Korean communism—began, in retrospect, on May 8, in the Florida Panhandle, at a rally in Panama City. It was there that Donald Trump gave tacit approval to the use of violence against immigrants.
The Panama City rally was not particularly remarkable, as Trump rallies go. His message was typically soulless. He tried to provoke feelings of deep insecurity among his followers, in the style of an expert populist preacher, and he stroked their egos by referring to them as America’s true elite. At times, his rhetoric was uglier in degree, though not in kind, than normal. He scapegoated Puerto Rico; he encouraged the crowd in its call to imprison Hillary Clinton; he praised Republican Senator Marco Rubio, whom he has neutered; he shared his jumbled thoughts about General Motors; he stated, fantastically, “We believe in the rule of law.”
Late in his disorderly presentation, as he discussed the work of Border Patrol officers, he raised, and then dismissed, the idea of allowing them to use violence against migrants.
“And don’t forget—we don’t let them and we can’t let them use weapons,” he said. “We can’t. Other countries do. We can’t. I would never do that. But how do you stop these people? You can’t. There’s—”
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.
Three years ago, The Atlantic, in its endorsement of Hillary Clinton for president (an editorial motivated not by love for Clinton but by fear of Trump), stated, “In one of the more sordid episodes in modern American politics, Trump made himself the face of the so-called birther movement, which had as its immediate goal the demonization of the country’s first African American president. Trump’s larger goal, it seemed, was to stoke fear among white Americans of dark-skinned foreigners.”
It is depressing to realize that we were correct (though, if anything, understated in our analysis), and it is depressing to think that there is no immediate way out of this crisis.