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Is Donald Trump normalizing political violence in America?

Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump arrives for a campaign rally Saturday, July 29 in Erie, Pennsylvania. (Sue Ogrocki/AP)
Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump arrives for a campaign rally Saturday, July 29 in Erie, Pennsylvania. (Sue Ogrocki/AP)

When Donald Trump suggested that General Mark Milley should be executed, it was the latest in a long line of violent rhetoric from the former President.

“When Mr. Trump says something through social media or at his rallies that deprecates another person names another person, those people then get threatened. They get threatened with violence,” Mary McCord says.

“Their families get threatened for violence.”

Today, On Point: Has Trump normalized political violence in America?

Guests

Esteban Candelaria, reporter with The Albuquerque Journal.

Mary McCord, legal director at the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection. Visiting professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center. (@GeorgetownICAP)

Ruth Ben-Ghiat, professor of history and Italian Studies at New York University. Author of “Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present.” She has a newsletter on democracy around the world and in the U.S. on Substack called Lucid.

Also Featured

Brian Klaas, associate professor in global politics, University College London. Contributing writer at The Atlantic.

Transcript

Part I

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Since 2015, Donald Trump has steadily amped up the violence of his political rhetoric. On the campaign trail back in February of 2016, a fight broke out between a Trump supporter and an anti-Trump protester at a Las Vegas campaign rally. After police broke up that fight, Trump said, “You know what I hate? There’s a guy, totally disruptive, throwing punches. We’re not allowed to punch back anymore. I love the old days. You know what they used to do to guys like that when they were in a place like this? They’d be carried out on a stretcher, folks.”

A few minutes later, Trump added that he would like to, quote, “Punch the protester in the face.”

Now, that was several years ago. But month after month, Trump has escalated. All that talk about jailing opponents, jokes about shooting looters, professing his love for the mob that violently attacked Congress on January 6. And late last month, Trump posted a screed on Truth Social, his social media network.

And in it, he excoriated General Mark Milley for making a phone call to reassure Chinese leaders after the January 6 Capitol attack. In fact, the call was explicitly authorized by Trump administration officials, but in his recent post, Donald Trump railed that Milley’s call was, quote, “An act so egregious that in times gone by, the punishment would have been death.”

Now, Trump’s most ardent supporters quickly embraced and repeated the former president’s unprecedented call to execute a former chair of the nation’s Joint Chiefs of Staff. These are Trump supporters just this past weekend at an Iowa rally.

SUPPORTER #1: Treason is treason. There’s only one cure for treason.

INTERVIEWER: And what is that?

SUPPORTER: #1: Being put to death.

SUPPORTER #2: Treason is treason. And we used to execute or imprison people for, and all the treasonous actions I see now in this day and age is just thrown underneath the rug.

SUPPORTER #3: I know Trump’s feelings about Mark Milley, and I agree. Why was he not before a firing squad within a month?

CHAKRABARTI: Those Trump supporters appeared on MSNBC.

At what point does this constant avalanche of political rhetoric, violent political rhetoric, effectively normalize actual political violence. Are we already there? Consider what happened just on September 28th in Española, New Mexico.

NEWS BRIEF: Police identified 23-year-old Ryan Martinez, seen wearing a teal jacket and a red Make America Great Again hat, as the man who clashed with demonstrators at a rally in New Mexico, celebrating a decision by authorities to postpone the installation of a statue commemorating Juan de Oñate, a Spanish conquistador with a brutal history.

The scuffle, captured on cell phone video, takes place seconds before the suspect draws a handgun and pulls the trigger.

(CELL PHONE VIDEO PLAYS)

Hitting a Native American man from Washington in the torso.

CHAKRABARTI: That report from CBS News. Esteban Candelaria joins us. He’s a staff reporter for the Albuquerque Journal, and he joins us from Albuquerque, New Mexico. He has been reporting extensively on the Española shooting. Esteban, welcome to On Point.

ESTEBAN CANDELARIA: Hi, Meghna. Thanks for having me.

CHAKRABARTI: So I’ve watched that cell phone video of the shooting several times, and I wonder if, in order to be as factual as we possibly can, if we can just describe specifically what happened, what sort of started the scuffle between the suspect and the protesters who were there protesting the statute being put up in Española?

CANDELARIA: Absolutely, there’s a couple of different angles of that video. There’s a few different people who took videos. And from what law enforcement and witnesses have said, it looks like Ryan Martinez was making an effort to get to a shrine that was set up at the pedestal where the Oñate statue was supposed to be relocated.

All throughout that day, people had said that he was antagonizing people and walking around with another, with a group of several other men who were wearing MAGA hats and had just basically been there to start provoking people. And so that culminated to a point where he’s trying to reach this shrine and try to make runs at the shrine.

And a group of men who have been described as just peacekeepers are trying to block him from getting to that shrine.

CHAKRABARTI: Now, so this is where the cell phone video that I’ve seen shows that group of men scuffling with Martinez to keep him away from the shrine. Then Martinez actually manages to clear a somewhat low knee height or maybe hip height concrete wall, it looks like, so he’s managed to physically separate himself from those other men who were trying to keep him from the shrine. He could have at that point just turned and walked away back to his car, but he doesn’t.

Instead, it seems like, very quickly, he pulls out a weapon, a gun that was hidden under his shirt, tucked into his belt. Is that right?

CANDELARIA: That’s right. And authorities make a note that the men don’t try to pursue him over the wall. He breaks free and they stay on one side of the wall.

And in the next few seconds, he pulls a handgun from his waistband and shoots one shot and hits Jacob Johns, a Native American activist from Washington.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Now, Jacob Johns did not die. Do we know his status, his medical status right now?

CANDELARIA: Yeah, the last I had heard, he was in stable condition, but wasn’t out of the woods yet.

He had been flown to the University of New Mexico Hospital for surgery, for his wounds to be treated. He was shot in the upper abdomen, and it’s pretty serious but the last I had heard, he was in stable condition.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So let’s talk a little bit more about what you’ve reported regarding Ryan Martinez.

For example, in the Albuquerque Journal, you have, you co-reported a story that looked into Martinez’s social media and what he’s posted online. How would you describe his online presence?

CANDELARIA: Yeah. He throughout his Facebook page, there’s lots of photos of him. Wearing what appears to be the same Make America Great Again hats.

He spreads election fraud conspiracies and has a lot to say about Joe Biden and the quote-unquote Chinese Communist Party. He also, according to a pretrial detention motion, filed this week, has a history of violent rhetoric. He’s made threatening remarks to the federal reserve for which the FBI at one point investigated him and did not find any, they did not find any tangible threats to a person.

But he has been on law enforcement’s radar before.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Obviously with the ownership and wearing of the red Make America Great Again hat, he’s demonstrated his support for Donald Trump and or Trumpism. Do we know if he’s been to any Trump rallies or anything like that yet?

CANDELARIA: To my knowledge, I don’t know if he has been to any Trump rallies, necessarily.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. But his social media, as you’re reporting, seems to evince at least a like mindedness between what Martinez believes and some of the things that Donald Trump has championed and talked about.

Is that fair to say?

CANDELARIA: Yeah, absolutely. His Facebook intro is “Trump won.” And again, he’s wearing his MAGA hat all over the place. Shares photos of the former president. And so I think that’s fair to say.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Now, we cannot go as far as to say Donald Trump caused Ryan Martinez to pull the gun out from under his belt and pull the trigger.

But that’s not exactly how normalizing violence works. So we’re going to analyze a little bit more about that later. But Esteban, what is particularly disturbing about this story is that this is not the first time a shooting has occurred over this very same statue. So just quickly tell us, remind us who the statue is of and why it’s so controversial.

CANDELARIA: Yeah, so the statue is of Conquistador Juan de Oñate, who in the 1500s came and colonized significant swaths of New Mexico. And to be clear, it is actually a separate statue. In Albuquerque, in 2020, there were peaceful protests to remove a different statue of Juan de Onate, who has been a very controversial figure for a long time. On one hand, some people see him as something of a founding father, in terms of settling New Mexico. But many others see him as having a much more bloody history.

And that being largely due to his treatment of people from the Pueblo of Acoma, who he really violently retaliated against after an uprising, and killed a lot of people, maimed a lot of people and enslaved a lot of people. So there’s been a lot of tension over this statue and how to remember Oñate. And the one that this particular shooting was over was over a separate one in a county.

CHAKRABARTI: I see. And so same conquistador, but two separate statues, and there’s been tensions and violence around both of those statues. Esteban, I know that you’re going to be continuing your reporting on what happened in Española and the now charging and may perhaps eventual trial of Ryan Martinez, but thank you so much for joining us today, and we’d like to stay in touch with you as news keeps developing there in New Mexico.

CANDELARIA: Absolutely. Thank you, Meghna.

Part II

CHAKRABARTI: Today we are asking if Donald Trump’s continuously escalating violent political rhetoric is or has normalized the validity of actual political violence in this country. Here’s a couple more examples of some things that Trump has said fairly recently, actually. Instead of participating in last week’s Republican debate, Trump spoke at a truck parts manufacturing plant outside of Detroit, Michigan.

And he said becoming a politician has forced him to, quote, “Beat up on his enemies.”

TRUMP: How will we rescue the auto manufacturing in the United States? Let’s remember, we’ve got to remember how we got here for decades and decades. And I’ve been talking about this subject for 12 years, long before I ever thought of becoming a politician.

How good was that? That’s a lot of fun. I could have had the easiest, nicest life. I would have had the nicest, softest life and instead I have to beat these lunatics up all day long. (AUDIENCE LAUGHS AND CHEERS) Every day. Every day! Lunatics.

CHAKRABARTI: That’s Trump last week. Here he is at a California Republican Party’s fall convention in Anaheim.

Also last week, he talked about how shoplifters and looters would be dealt with if he were to be president again.

TRUMP: And we will immediately stop all of the pillaging and theft. Very simply, if you rob a store, you can fully expect to be shot as you are leaving that store. Shot!

CHAKRABARTI: Joining us now is Mary McCord. She’s legal director at the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection and visiting professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center. From 2016 to 2017, she was acting assistant attorney general for national security at the Department of Justice. Mary McCord, welcome back to On Point.

MARY McCORD: It’s nice to be here, Meghna. Thank you.

CHAKRABARTI: I understand that you actually happened to be in New Mexico on September 28th when that shooting in Española happened that we talked about with Esteban in the first segment of the program. Is that right? Were you just incidentally in New Mexico?

McCORD: Not really incidentally. Obviously, I wasn’t there knowing anything about this, that the shooting would be happening. But the reason I was there is that my organization was hosting a two-day convening on political violence. We brought together local, state, and federal leaders in the election space, as well as public safety and law enforcement space.

We brought together community organizers and activists, some of who work in voting rights and some who work to make sure that the communities they serve have opportunities to participate in democratic processes.

And this two-day convening includes threat briefings from researchers who spend their time in the online extremism milieu, and also study offline real-world extremism, researchers who study the impact of extremism on democracies, a deep dive that my organization presents into the first and second amendment, what those protect and what they do not protect.

And the sharing of experiences of those who are in attendance, many of whom have suffered threats themselves and related either to their confirmation of the results of the 2020 election, which of course was very controversial to those who believe the election was stolen and some who, for example, receive threats because maybe they’re a member or an ally of the LGBTQ community.

So literally as I was giving the closing remarks, closing this convening of about 85 people, that’s when we learned about the shooting just miles up the road.

CHAKRABARTI: Wow. Okay. So clearly the fact that there’s so much intense interest and need to have these convenings and discussions about the potential for political violence means that the people who are paying attention are concerned.

So let’s focus for another minute, if we can, on what happened in Española, because of course, and I just want to stress to listeners that no one is saying Donald Trump made Ryan Martinez allegedly do what he’s alleged to have done. That logic would not stand up in a court of law.

But that’s not exactly how a normalization of politically violent rhetoric works in changing what is deemed to be acceptable behavior in real life. So how would you analyze, Mary, the fact that Martinez is known to have been wearing a MAGA hat. That’s been captured on film in about 10,000 pictures. But what Esteban was reporting that Martinez had on his social media, and how that might relate to what happened on September 28th.

McCORD: There’s no question that Donald Trump and actually many of his close allies have been really on a trend over the last number of years, really going back even to the 2016 campaign to normalize violence. And we see it, of course, in the, just in this last week, we’ve seen Donald Trump lashing out.

Against the judge in his civil fraud trial in New York City, the attorney general there, we’ve seen him lash out against prosecutors in the criminal cases, judges in the criminal cases, potential witnesses, including Mark Milley, who you spoke about in your introduction. And then, of course, these recent attacks on making fun of the attack on Paul Pelosi, Nancy Pelosi’s husband.

And suggesting shoplifters should be shot, but this is not new. And in fact, relating again to New Mexico, people feel emboldened by Trump’s giving permission to not only say violent and incendiary things, but to their point of view, it’s permission to actually engage in acts of violence.

And we can just go back to 2020, the summer of 2020, your previous guest, the reporter, Esteban, mentioned that this was not the first controversy in New Mexico involving the statute ofJuan de Oñate. In the summer of 2020, after George Floyd was murdered, as I think everyone will recall, racial justice demonstrations broke out around the country and in fact, around the world.

And one of those happened in Albuquerque over a protest suggesting that the statute there should be brought down. What happened then I would say in response to Trump generally saying that these racial justice protests involved anarchists and rioters who were bent on looting, et cetera, that was permission for groups like in New Mexico and unlawful private militia to deploy to that statue, to try to protect it from the protesters who wanted to bring it down.

The violence there escalated to the point where a person was shot there, as well. So we now have two times that people feel emboldened, I would say, by Trump’s rhetoric, his giving them permission to go out there and engage in violence, intimidation, and threats twice in New Mexico over the same Spanish conquistador.

It’s really pretty remarkable. And we’ve seen it so many other places. So what would you say though, to the notion that I presume many people have, which is that this is just tough guy talk, right? It’s part of his carnival barker shtick. We heard in the clip that I played a little bit earlier.

He talks about before I was a politician, I didn’t have to do this, that and the other. There’s this elbow jabbing frat boy jokiness to it, but then it culminates in the, “I want to beat people up.” Again, this was the same justification that was given to the Access Hollywood tape so many years ago, that it was just locker room talk.

Is there anything to that? That, so therefore, perhaps we shouldn’t be pressingly concerned about it.

McCORD: No, I think we should be pressingly concerned because we’ve seen over and over again, not only that he engages in this rhetoric, but look at how it’s expanded. Back in 2016, 2017, we didn’t have other elected members of Congress engaging in the same sort of violent rhetoric and pandering to paramilitary groups. But over the ensuing years, had elected members of Congress, putting out memes of about their own colleagues in Congress that suggest acts of violence toward them.

You have talk about civil war by elected officials, and you have multiple occasions of human beings, Americans here on the ground, actually acting on the types of things that president, that former president Trump and his allies are saying. And that goes back to, even before 2020, even before Stop the Steal, when Trump would talk about a Latino invasion across the Southern border and the need, that’s infecting our way of life, we had unlawful private militias deployed to the border, armed and capturing migrants and detaining them unlawfully.

So there is a real-world impact. And, if we just take in recent times, in 2020, of course we had malicious deploying to state houses, forcibly and violently storming those state houses in opposition to COVID related health measures, after the former president.

Of course, he was the president at the time, denigrated the officials who were engaging in those public health measures. And, more recently, we see after the search, for example, last year at Mara-Lago and Trump’s attacks on the FBI, we see a person violently attacked and try to commit an attack against an FBI office in Cincinnati.

So I don’t think we can understate the significance of this. I will, on a hopeful note, say there are researchers that do polling. I do think it is a minority of Americans who believe that violence is justified. Political violence is justified. That minority, unfortunately, has an outsized voice, because they are so active on social media and because the former president himself continues to agitate the violence. But most Americans in most polling really do not believe that violence, including using a firearm or shooting someone is justified for political purposes.

And those are the voices I think that really do need to get elevated.

CHAKRABARTI: Huh. So first of all, let me play a couple of examples of how Trumpian violent political rhetoric, as you point out, Mary, has spread beyond Donald Trump himself, to other either high profile political people or actual political leaders.

For example, this is Arizona Republican Kari Lake in June speaking at a Republican convention in Columbus, Georgia. Now, this was in response to, again, as you mentioned, Mary, the indictment against Trump for retaining classified government records. So Carrie Lake said she and other Republicans would stand up in defense of Donald Trump.

KARI LAKE: If you want to get to President Trump, you’re going to have to go through me, and you’re going to have to go through somebody else. 75 million Americans just like me, and I’m going to tell you, yep, most of us are card carrying members of the NRA.

That’s not a threat. That’s a public service announcement.

CHAKRABARTI: Arizona’s Kari Lake in June. Now here is an actual piece of tape from the 2024 campaign trail because at a New Hampshire campaign stop in early August Florida governor and Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis used very specific imagery how he would reduce the size of the federal workforce if elected president.

RON DeSANTIS: And then on bureaucracy we’re going to have all these deep state people, we’re going to start slitting throats on day one and be ready to go. You’re going to see a huge outcry because Washington wants to protect its own. But at the end of the day, this is a city that’s failed this country.

CHAKRABARTI: That was Ron DeSantis in New Hampshire in August. Now, Mary, I also heard you say specifically that you feel hopeful because the actual number of Americans who might feel that it’s justified, that violence is justified in the pursuit of political ends, is very small.

But I wonder what we mean by small here, because I was reading some research from Robert Pape, who I know you know well. And he has been fielding surveys for quite some time about how Americans feel about political violence. And in a May 2023 survey, he found that if he extrapolates the results from his survey group, which was more than 8,000 respondents, that extrapolating from that, about 16 million adults agree that the use of force is justified to even prevent the prosecution of Donald Trump.

16 million plus or minus a percent, a couple percent in the margin of error still seems like a tremendous number, Mary.

McCORD: It is a tremendous number. And what I really mean to say is by percentages it’s a smaller percentage than those who don’t believe in that type of political violence.

But still, when you look at the population of the United States, that’s still a remarkable number and a very scary number. And I would say one of the things that’s the most difficult for law enforcement to prevent is that lone wolf actor, the shooter we were just talking about up in Española.

What we’ve seen since January 6 is a move away from massive violence demonstrations like we saw on January 6 at the Capitol. I think the impact of more than 1000 prosecutions and imprisonment sentences for many of those people has dissuaded this sort of national coalescence in a violent way to come out in public in things.

And we’ve seen the crowds at Trump’s arraignments, for example, be paltry compared to what he was looking for and called for. But what we’ve seen is a decentralized, localized, insidious creep of violence and paramilitarism into our politics at that local level. So it’s school board meetings that are being disrupted.

By extremists and even school board members being pushed out by threats and intimidation. Election officials pushed out by threats and intimidation; county boards taken over. And in fact, and then of course a lot of election deniers who, including Kari Lake, who are self seems very only thinly veiled, if veiled at all stoking violence.

We’ve seen this play out across the country. And then, at the same time, we see lone actors, the woman who called and made a death threat against Judge Tanya Chutkan and the judge in the D. C. District Court case. Those things are really hard to guard against, and that’s why you’re right. The numbers that Robert Pape has, and other researchers have, even though it’s a small percentage of Americans or a minority of Americans, that can still be very dangerous.

And this is the thing that happens in failing democracies and fledgling democracies. Where violence is something that is espoused by the leadership. There are alliances sometimes that then develop between leadership and paramilitary organizations.

And, at some point, those paramilitary organizations or paramilitary actors become the leaders themselves. And we’re not to that point yet, but if you look back at Stop the Steal and even before the election in 2020, Mr. Trump and people around him like Roger Stone and Michael Flynn, those two people were actually using members of a paramilitary group, the Oath Keepers, as their security.

Candidates like Marjorie Taylor Greene using paramilitary organizations, armed people with no authority whatsoever under federal or state law to be a military organization. You see them protecting our elected officials.

Part III

CHAKRABARTI: Today, we are talking about Donald Trump’s ever escalating violent political rhetoric, and if that is normalizing political violence, actual political violence in this country. We’re going to talk to an expert on authoritarianism in just a minute, but we also reached out to Brian Klaas.

He’s an associate professor in global politics at University College London, and he’s been following Trump’s rhetoric for years. And he especially remembers examples such as what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017 when Trump talked about finding very good people on both sides.

There was wall to wall coverage in the news media about that, but Klaas says things have changed, that Trump’s violent rhetoric is simply not covered in the media as it once was.

BRIAN KLAAS: In the last week and a half, Trump has effectively floated the idea of executing America’s top general. He has made a joke about an assassination attempt on Nancy Pelosi’s husband, where he was almost beaten to death with a hammer in the skull.

He’s suggested that you should shoot looters. And he has also amplified a series of conspiracy theories that in the past would have gotten lots and lots of press. So you have all these sort of calls to violence that exist in what I call the banality of crazy, this sort of numbing effect where because Trump with such regularity says things that would be enormous scandals in normal politics.

We have just grown used to them.

CHAKRABARTI: And Klaas says there’s a grave danger in being lulled by that banality of crazy, as he says, that growing used to Trump’s violent political rhetoric is dangerous.

KLAAS: The big danger, to my mind, is that there’s an asymmetry here in how the media treats Joe Biden, where the old rules still apply, and how the media treats Donald Trump, where he’s given a free pass, simply because everything else he does is so outlandish that the slightly less outlandish stuff doesn’t get covered nearly as much.

I’d encourage people to do a quick little experiment on their own, the commander Biden story, which is the story of Joe Biden’s dog biting a secret service agent, type that into Google news, then type in Trump and shoplifters into Google news. You will find that there are about three or four times as many stories about Joe Biden’s dog.

Then there are about Trump literally saying that he should use extra judicial killing to deal with people who are guilty of petty crimes. And this is a person who, in a year and a half may, well be the commander in chief and the president of the United States. To me, there’s this grotesque asymmetry where because of the numbness we’re simply not waking up to the calls for violence and they are very dangerous.

And I think there’s a serious risk they will lead to real world killings heading into the 2024 election and beyond.

CHAKRABARTI: That’s Brian Klaas, associate professor in Global Politics at University College London.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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