Hey, did you hear the one about Richard Burr, the North Carolina Republican senator who “joked” last weekend that “nothing made me feel better” than seeing a picture of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton on the cover of a firearms magazine? “I was a little bit shocked at that — it didn’t have a bullseye on it,” Burr said, getting a big laugh from a roomful of GOP volunteers.
Just a few months earlier, Donald Trump, who has presided over a number of violent incidents at his raucous campaign rallies, quipped that if Clinton is elected and “gets to pick her judges — nothing you can do, folks. Although the 2nd Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know.”
For what it’s worth — and during this campaign, so many apologies cover the ground like dead leaves — Burr eventually called his comment “inappropriate.” Of course Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, carped that he’d been misinterpreted. After all, why would anyone believe that a man who said of a protestor, “I’d like to punch him in the face,” and longed for the “old days” when such a person would’ve been “carried out on a stretcher,” would advocate violence?
Among other sickening things, 2016 is the year when assassination became a fetid political punch line.
Even by the standards of an election season so grotesque that the Ku Klux Klan officially endorsed for president a feral plutocrat, rabid suggestions of violence are stomach churning. From agitated Trump crowds yelling, “Lock her up,” to a Clinton doll festooned with a noose, to New Hampshire state Rep. Al Baldasaro claiming Clinton “should be put in the firing line and shot for treason,” the stench of possible mayhem is stifling. (Baldasaro was later contacted by the Secret Service.)
This isn’t the first time violent rhetoric has peppered our recent political discourse. In 2008, Mike Huckabee, after his first aborted bid for the presidency, heard a loud noise while making a speech at an NRA convention. The former Arkansas governor said the sound was made by then Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama: “Somebody aimed a gun at him and he dove for the floor.”
In 1963, fliers accusing President John F. Kennedy of “betraying the Constitution” and declaring he was “Wanted for Treason” were distributed in Dallas days before his fateful trip. In times of uncontained political discontent, it is reckless to toss more fuel onto an inferno. After the JFK assassination, those raging fires would later consume Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy.
With Election Day next week, millions are looking ahead with not just anxiety, but paralyzing dread. Some cities and towns are so concerned about possible violence that schools serving as polling places will be closed to students. By any standard, America is a breathtakingly violent nation. We’re not merely prone to it; we manically embrace it as an inalienable birthright. This season, that ferocity has been nurtured, cheered, and given malevolent purpose.
Regardless of who wins, the uncivil war that has cleaved friendships, families, and this country will not heal after the votes are counted. Should something catastrophic occur, no one should pretend to be surprised. For more than a year, suggestions of political violence have been a crescendo careening toward what could be a bloody coda. We are a nation on the precipice of chaos when a presidential nominee and his supporters openly intimate that a bullet may be more effective, even preferable, to a ballot.
Renée Graham writes regularly for the Globe. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.