On the second day of the impeachment trial, the House managers laid the case that violence was integral from the very start of the political career of Donald Trump. From his first days as a candidate in 2015, Trump incited, invited, glorified, and condoned violence by his supporters. As the coronavirus pandemic weighed upon the country—and his own reelection hopes dwindled—Trump’s turn to violence became more extreme.
Lead impeachment manager Jamie Raskin identified the attacks upon Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer as a crucial turning point. Trump wanted Whitmer to reopen her state faster, in hope of stimulating the Michigan economy sufficiently to secure that state’s electoral votes. When she did not comply, armed Trump supporters first invaded the state legislature, and then plotted Whitmer’s kidnapping and murder. As Raskin observed, Trump not only failed to condemn the violence, but almost immediately afterward resumed his Twitter attacks on Whitmer for disregarding his wishes.
It’s hard to cope with the shock and outrage of this. American history has been disfigured often enough by violence. In the civil-rights era, that violence was frequently inspired, directed, and even committed by elected officials: sheriffs, mayors, governors. But in more recent decades, Americans have generally penalized politicians who countenanced violence.
Mass shootings and other atrocities still afflict the country. But before Trump ran for office, that kind of violence usually emerged from the most troubled, most isolated people in society. Many killers found their inspiration online, at the extremes—not from anybody competing seriously for the top jobs in U.S. politics.
Politicians who ran as outsiders took extra care to distance themselves from anyone or anything implicated in violence. Ross Perot had no truck with that kind of extremism when he ran for president in 1992 and 1996. He may have held some cranky ideas, but his political behavior was straight-arrow. Anti-Iraq war groups hurled themselves into door-knocking, get-out-the-vote drives, and online fundraising and advertising—nothing like the turbulence of the anti-Vietnam protests of the 1960s.
In 2008, Barack Obama faced intense scrutiny as a presidential candidate over his acquaintance with Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, who had been leaders of the domestic terrorist group Weather Underground in the 1960s. They had detonated bombs. The Weathermen never succeeded in hurting anyone outside their own organization—three members of whom were killed by accident—but that record was due more to good luck than good intentions. At one of the debates between Obama and Hillary Clinton that year, the moderator, George Stephanopoulos, pressed Obama to explain how he could have served for three years with Ayers on the board of an educational foundation and done a campaign event in the Ayers-Dohrn living room. Obama answered,
This is a guy who lives in my neighborhood, who’s a professor of English in Chicago who I know and who I have not received some official endorsement from. He’s not somebody who I exchange ideas from on a regular basis. And the notion that somehow, as a consequence of me knowing somebody who engaged in detestable acts 40 years ago, when I was 8 years old, somehow reflects on me and my values doesn’t make much sense, George.
Yet that was not enough for some. First Clinton, then the Republican nominee John McCain, questioned Obama’s judgment and character. McCain’s running mate, Sarah Palin, accused Obama of “palling around with terrorists.” That charge was exaggerated to absurdity. But it was founded on a recognition that palling around with terrorists would be a bad thing for a president to do, if true. (The final word on its untruth was spoken by Ayers himself in 2013. “Obama’s not a radical. I wish he were, but he’s not.”)
A dozen years later, Trump draws support not from people with violent pasts, but from people with violent presents. He thanks and praises them. More than any politician since the days of Lester Maddox and Orville Faubus, Trump made violence integral to his political appeal from the beginning to the end of his presidential career. This is truly a change in American life—and possibly a change that will be hard to undo.
Trump summoned political violence because it delighted and enthralled him, but also because he believed it could yield dividends. He expected that violence by private individuals could help him gain and keep state power. As he said in a March 2019 interview with Breitbart News:
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.
On January 6, 2021, things became very bad indeed. And the question before the country is: Will the politics of violence be accepted in the United States—or will it be punished and discredited as it was when used by anti–Vietnam War leftists and anti-civil-rights racists? The forces Trump conjured remain forces to reckon with. Hundreds of millions of firearms are housed in American garages, basements, and attics. Delusions and disinformation still flow through social media. For a long time, however, mainstream politics has been barricaded from violence not only by the moral resistance of decent people—but also by the pragmatic calculations of even cynical politicians that violence does not pay.
That pragmatic calculation has been weakening. In 2018, the present governor of Montana won a House race after he violently attacked a journalist for asking him an unwanted question. More and more politicians campaign with firearms at their side. The taboo on political violence, already weaker in the United States than in many peer democracies, is weakening further. Among other things, Trump’s impeachment trial offers an opportunity to reassert that taboo, to denormalize mayhem and murder as the route to power.
So it’s not only Trump who is on trial. It’s his methods—and all who aspire to adopt his methods as their own in the political contests ahead.