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Normalizing Trump’s unhinged rage is an invitation to violence

When the former president — and current front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination — makes inciting comments, he must be called out and challenged without reservation.

General Mark Milley, outgoing chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified before a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill on Sept. 28, 2021.SARAHBETH MANEY/NYT

It’s a safe bet that far more people heard about singer Taylor Swift watching her maybe-boyfriend Travis Kelce of the Kansas City Chiefs play football than about Donald Trump intimating that General Mark Milley, the outgoing Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, should be executed.

Last week on his angry little man social media site, Trump lied, saying that Milley “was actually dealing with China to give them a heads up on the thinking of the President of the United States. This is an act so egregious that, in times gone by, the punishment would have been DEATH!” Milley served as Joint Chiefs chairman during the last two years of Trump’s presidency.


A former president, currently the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, suggested that Milley, whose term ends this week, should be put to death for treason. But Trump’s threats of violence, a pillar of his twisted political life, are so commonplace they seem to fall beneath the sight line of too many Americans.

Like a dog that barks incessantly, Trump’s endless griping has become a kind of “Old man yells at cloud” white noise. And of course, there’s always a concern about giving Trump the spotlight — his oxygen — that he so desperately craves. But when he makes statements so atrocious and vile, he must be called out, challenged, and condemned without reservation.

As usual, Trump is molding facts to fit into his hate machine. What Milley did, which he explained under oath before Congress in 2021, was make two telephone calls to his counterpart in China to address what he called “concerning intelligence” that Chinese officials were worried about a potential US attack. Those calls — one of which was made days after the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection — were authorized by national security agencies and Trump’s own defense officials.


But when has Trump ever let the truth get in the way, especially when there’s an opportunity to rile up his followers with overt mentions of violence?

His MAGA minions heard him. In his newsletter, Republican Representative Paul Gosar of Arizona claimed nonsensically that on Jan. 6 the “deviant” Milley “was coordinating with [then-House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi to hurt President Trump, and treasonously working behind Trump’s back.” He added, “In a better society, quislings like the strange sodomy-promoting General Milley would be hung (sic).”

By dictionary definition, a quisling is a “traitor.” By Gosar’s definition, “a better society” is one where execution is the deserved outcome for those who don’t capitulate to Trump.

In a post on X, formerly known as Twitter, Democratic Representative Elissa Slotkin of Michigan excoriated Gosar’s comments. “Gen. Milley has risked his life in combat for this nation, and deserves nothing less than our gratitude for his four decades of service,” she said Monday. “Rep. Gosar’s words are beyond reprehensible, beneath a member of this body, and should be unequivocally condemned.”

Good luck finding Republicans willing to even mildly chide Gosar or Trump for their inflammatory words. It’s unlikely that any of Trump’s fellow GOP presidential contenders — except, perhaps, former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, whose relationship with Trump has curdled into mutual hostility — will mention Trump’s troubling comments about Milley during the second GOP debate Wednesday.

Even as they try to siphon off bits of Trump’s base, GOP candidates mostly kowtow to him rather than risk making themselves a target of his inexhaustible ire. Even with the names of hundreds of politicians, organizations, journalists, and celebrities, Richard Nixon’s infamous “enemies list” could fit on a postcard compared to Trump’s. A thin-skinned man who demands not just loyalty but complete subservience, Trump targets anyone with a mind of their own or adherence to the rule of law.


Milley was effectively the last of what Trump used to call “my generals,” as if they were his private military bound to support, defend, and bear allegiance to him instead of to the Constitution. But in refusing to do so, in placing democracy above the autocratic whims of one unhinged man, Milley has been marked as disloyal to Trump. It is an unveiled message to Trump’s real army — those who will risk their lives and freedom in the name of their monstrous master.

With 2024 quickly approaching, these uneasy days feel not only like a countdown to the next presidential election but also to the next insurrection. At a time when the quadruple-indicted Trump is running on his most disturbing platform of white grievance and retribution, any normalization of his escalating rhetoric is another invitation to the mayhem and brutality of his most acquiescent followers.

Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at Follow her @reneeygraham.