With her defeat all but certain, Hillary Clinton struggled in 2008 to explain why she refused to concede the Democratic nomination fight to Barack Obama. “We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California,” she said.
The response was universally harsh. Her team quickly explained that Clinton meant to note simply that this was not the first primary campaign to stretch into the summer, not to suggest that Obama might be assassinated. She publicly apologized to the Kennedy family.
The incident showed how desperate Clinton was to win, how ham-fisted she could be as a candidate, and how far she would stretch to parse a political gaffe.
Donald Trump’s defenders are dredging up the Kennedy quote to defend a far more grotesque comment their candidate made Tuesday.
Hillary wants to abolish, essentially abolish the Second Amendment. If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people—maybe there is, I don’t know.
But—but I’ll tell you what. That will be a horrible day. If—if Hillary gets to put her judges—right now, we’re tied. You see what’s going on.
I’m not a mind reader, so I don’t know what Trump meant to suggest when he said, “maybe there is” something Second Amendment supporters can do to prevent Clinton from picking judges.
But it almost doesn’t matter what Trump meant to say, because of the truth in this maxim about leadership: What you say isn’t nearly as important as what people hear you say.
What did people hear?
First, they heard Trump again and again, throughout the primary campaign, discuss violence at his rallies with language that was either recklessly provocative or purposely inciting.
They heard an adviser to Trump say that Clinton should face a firing squad for her handling of the Benghazi raid and her private email server.
They heard Trump lie about Clinton’s approach to the Second Amendment: She does not want to abolish it.
They heard Trump say there is nothing a gun-rights advocate can do to stop her from appointing liberal judges.
They heard him say, wait—maybe there is something you can do.
They heard Trump say the election itself is rigged — that Clinton might steal the election, a baseless charge befitting not a democracy, but a banana republic on verge of revolution.
The people who are listening most closely to Trump tend to be those Americans most buffeted by economic and social change; least trusting in government, the media, and other social institutions; most enraged at the status quo, liberalism, and Washington; most likely to view Clinton as evil, the living embodiment of all they hate about politics and 21st-century America; and, finally, most likely to be exploited by Trump.
Many of them buy his spin. Trump says he was merely suggesting that gun-rights supporters will vote against Clinton. Right—and Clinton in 2008 was merely noting that Democratic campaigns run into the summer.
Unlike Trump, Clinton:
- In no way suggested or implied that Obama be killed for his political views.
- Apologized for reckless language that could be misinterpreted.
- Never spoke of it again.
I believe most Trump supporters are actually smarter than their candidate and more tolerant. They aren’t insecure bullies and bigots and sexists, but they are so desperate for change that they’re willing to roll the dice.
We will not see an army of Clinton haters take up arms against her.
But it only takes one.
If Trump meant to incite violence, he should be in jail. If this was an accident—if Trump doesn’t understand the danger he loaded into his language; if he doesn’t know how to measure his words—he should not be president.