At the height of the Tea Party movement in 2009 and 2010, an old quote from Thomas Jefferson became newly popular. “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants,” Jefferson wrote in 1787. (The quote is often presented without historical context, but actually refers to the recent suppression of an insurrection.)
The Tea Party has since splintered. Despite powering a huge Republican wave in the 2010 midterm elections, it was unable to prevent Barack Obama’s reelection in 2012. Some elements are now represented in the hardline House Freedom Caucus. Other strains of Tea Party thought have resurfaced in Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin has not forgotten the Jefferson quote. Speaking at the Values Voter Summit in Washington over the weekend, the Republican recalled it while suggesting that a Hillary Clinton victory in the presidential election could necessitate bloodshed:
I want us to be able to fight ideologically, mentally, spiritually, economically, so that we don’t have to do it physically. But that may, in fact, be the case….
Somebody asked me yesterday, I did an interview, “Do you think it’s possible, if Hillary Clinton were to win the election, do you think it’s possible that we’ll be able to survive, that we’d ever be able to recover as a nation?” And while there are people who have stood on this stage and said we would not, I would beg to differ. I do think it would be possible, but at what price? At what price? The roots of the tree of liberty are watered by what? The blood of who? The tyrants, to be sure, but who else? The patriots.
Whose blood will be shed? It may be that of those in this room. It might be that of our children and grandchildren. I have nine children. It breaks my heart to think that it might be their blood is needed to redeem something, to reclaim something that we, through our apathy and our indifference, have given away. Don’t let it happen.
As the Lexington Herald-Leader reports, those comments took many listeners aback. On Monday, Bevin said in a statement that his comments had been misconstrued and referred to those fighting in the military.
“Today we have thousands of men and women in uniform fighting for us overseas and they need our full backing,” he said. “We cannot be complacent about the determination of radical Islamic extremists to destroy our freedoms.”
As the full context of Bevin’s VVS remarks demonstrate, that’s pure spin. Bevin was clearly suggesting that bloodshed might be necessary domestically in the event of a Clinton victory. (You can watch the speech here.)
Yet the fact that Bevin is trying to walk it back also demonstrates just how extreme the statement is: a sitting governor suggesting publicly that armed insurrection might be necessary if a legitimate presidential election doesn’t go the way he wants.
Implications about armed revolt were somewhat common at the height of the Tea Party movement, and at the height of that Jefferson quote’s prominence. Few of the cries for uprising came from elected officials. In 2010, Sharron Angle, the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate in Nevada, said that she hoped “Second Amendment remedies” would not be necessary to deal with a “tyrannical” government—while clearly leaving the option open. Her statement was a huge national controversy; she ended up losing to Senator Harry Reid that November.
The 2016 election has been so strange that Bevin’s remark may barely register. In August, Republican presidential nominee made reference to the possible assassination of either Hillary Clinton or Supreme Court nominees, saying, “If she gets the pick of her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I dunno.” Trump and his backers tried to play it off as a poorly executed joke.
Bevin’s comments do, however, underscore the apocalyptic attitudes aroused by this election, which has been unusually marked by fear. It is common for partisans on both sides to declare each new election “the most important of our lifetime” or something similar, but the nominations of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have produced similar reactions from each candidate’s fiercest opponents: a sense not just that a loss would be catastrophic, and not even just the worst of a lifetime, but that it would be existentially dangerous to the United States.
Such sentiments are not unheard of; liberals threatened (and for the most part failed) to move to Canada if George W. Bush was reelected, while Tea Partiers foresaw doom if Obama was reelected, a prediction that has not yet been borne out—except perhaps by voters’ choices in 2016.
Trump, with his manifest ignorance of the Constitution and disregard for international norms, has been the greatest focus of this worry. Many conservative national-security figures have come out against him, warning that he is not fit to control the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile. But as my colleague Molly Ball has written, fear may also be Trump’s most important tool in the election. Bevin’s speech is a reminder that Clinton’s opponents harbor apocalyptic fears too.