Donald Trump loves fast food, golf, and dictators. Especially dictators. During the course of his presidency, he has invited Rodrigo Duterte to the White House, praised Vladimir Putin’s leadership skills, and called Kim Jong Un “a smart cookie.” Such plaudits prompt an obvious question: If Trump could dispense with democracy, would he?
Many people fear the answer to that question. In Michael Cohen’s testimony to Congress in February, the president’s one-time attorney said, “I fear that if he loses the election in 2020, that there will never be a peaceful transition of power.” Cohen might not be the most reliable of authorities — prior to that testimony, he’d pleaded guilty to lying to Senate and House committees. But other, more credible figures have voiced similar concerns around the president’s likelihood — or unlikelihood — of accepting defeat in the 2020 election.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi predicted in a May interview with the New York Times that Trump would cast doubt on a close election and “poison the public mind.” Benjamin Hart went further in New York magazine and said “Trump is likely to cry foul no matter the election results.” Last week, Politico reporters Darren Samuelsohn and Natasha Bertrand wrote about the constant chatter throughout Capitol Hill about whether Trump might try to use the legal system to challenge election results.
Their apocalyptic pessimism is understandable in light of the last few years. Even so, there’s almost no chance that Trump could pull off a coup. Yes, he’s appointed many generals to positions of authority. But his working relationship with the armed forces is a disaster. Just last week he ordered an airstrike on Iran and then called it off with planes already in the air — a sign of indecisive leadership unlikely to endear him to military leaders. The Pentagon hasn’t even been willing to support Trump’s idea for a Space Force. If Trump can’t convince the military to cosign his bureaucratic priorities, he’s not going to get them to turn America into a dictatorship.
His supporters, though? That’s another story. Trump has encouraged political violence before and may do so again in 2020. So we shouldn’t let improbable fears of Armageddon distract us from smaller but more credible dangers. The specter of violence is real, and it could get plenty bad.
What does “plenty bad” entail, exactly? Well, for starters, the high probability that Trump will refuse to accept election results that don’t favor him. In 2016, while running for president, Trump claimed that he could only lose Pennsylvania if Democrats cheated. Even after he won the White House, he fixated on his loss in the popular vote, and falsely insisted that millions of undocumented immigrants had voted to tip the scales in Democrats’ favor. More recently, in 2018, during a very close Florida Senate race that Republicans eventually won, Trump alleged — without evidence — that the Democrats had committed voter fraud.
More alarmingly, in his 2016 campaign, Trump repeatedly encouraged physical attacks on his opponents. At rallies, he frequently praised violence against protestors, and suggested he might pay the legal fees of one man who punched a demonstrator. Trump even hinted that people might be justified in assassinating Hillary Clinton if she won the presidency. In October 2018, Trump praised a Republican Montana congressman for body-slamming a reporter.
Violent rhetoric isn’t just rhetoric. It encourages people to act. Political scientist Brian Schaffner found that exposing white people to Trump’s attacks on Mexicans led them to express more bigotry towards Mexicans and other groups. And one 2010 study found that exposure to mildly violent political speech increased support for political violence. “Explicit calls for violence by leaders certainly make violence more likely,” says the author of that study, Louisiana State University political science professor Nathan Kalmoe. “Partisans in the public follow party leaders on policy views, vote choice, and political participation because they trust them. Calls for low-level aggression like fistfights or even more lethal acts can function similarly.” Leaders lead. When they ask for violence, their followers deliver.
Violent rhetoric isn’t just rhetoric. It encourages people to act.
It’s not hard to find reports of Trump supporters using his name during actual acts of violence. In 2015, two men were arrested for beating a homeless man with a metal pipe and urinating on him; they reportedly yelled “Donald Trump was right” during the attack. In 2017, of course, neo-Nazis marched through the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, chanting things like “blood and soil,” “Jews will not replace us,” and, “Hail, Trump!” One year later, shortly before the midterm elections, a man was caught trying tried to send pipe bombs to a number of the president’s critics. These actions are extreme, but they’re not isolated. The FBI reported a 25.9% jump in hate crimes in 2016 over the previous year, with a big jump in incidents following Trump’s election. Reporters at Public Radio International documented many more incidents in which people used Trump’s name while engaging in hateful speech or actions.
Trump often responds to this kind of violence with wannabe dictator cheerfulness. After the beating of the homeless man in Detroit, Trump said violence was wrong, but also praised his supporters for being “passionate” and said, “they want this country to be great again.” Similarly, following the neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, Trump has continually refused to condemn the far right, insisting as recently as this April that “there were very fine people on both sides.” Again and again, Trump makes it clear that he thinks violence is acceptable while maintaining just enough deniability to claim he’s not personally responsible.
That deniability is intentional, says David Neiwert, a journalist and author of Alt-America: the Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump. “Trump “doesn’t need to even suggest the kind of violence that would be carried out,” he says. “All he has to do is basically name the target of who is the enemy of the state, and clearly suggest that they need to be taken out.” To wit: Earlier this year Trump posted a tweet falsely linking Representative Ilhan Omar, aDemocrat from Minnesota and a Muslim, to the 9/11 attacks. The implication was that Omar is a traitor and a threat to the nation. His supporters quickly began sending her a deluge of death threats.
Trump’s rhetoric is unusually explicit, but it’s not unprecedented: Republicans have been flirting with violent political rhetoric for decades. Rush Limbaugh would joke in the ’90s about exterminating people on the left. In 2008, former Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin infamously created a map of red-state Democrats who had voted for Obamacare, and put crosshairs on their faces. (One representative Palin singled out, Arizona representative Gabby Giffords, was shot and badly wounded, though there’s no evidence the shooter saw the map.) In 2009, Dr. George Tiller, an abortion provider, was assassinated after Bill O’Reilly demonized him for years. And in 2017, a Republican congressional candidate body-slammed a reporter.
Republicans insist, of course, that holding them responsible for violent rhetoric or violent acts is scurrilous, unacceptable, outrageous. Right-wing pundit Ben Shapiro’s reaction after being told that his rhetoric may have inspired a 2018 mosque shooting in Quebec was typically astringent: “If you think I’m responsible for his evil, GFY.”
You don’t distance yourself from violence by cursing and sneering at opponents, though. You distance yourself from violence by distancing yourself from violence. If Republicans don’t want there to be violence in 2020, they can start now by loudly affirming their confidence in the electoral process, no matter the result. They can denounce the hate crimes of 2016, and make it clear a repeat in 2020 is unacceptable.