Twenty years ago, I wrote one of my first ever opinion pieces about the incitement by the Israeli right that, I argued, contributed to the “climate of divisiveness that made the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin possible” in November 1995.
Two decades later, I find myself in the unimaginable position of writing about even worse incitement taking place in an American presidential election.
Yesterday at a campaign event in North Carolina, Donald Trump said of his opponent Hillary Clinton that she “wants to abolish, essentially abolish, the Second Amendment.”
He went on, “If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know.”
Let’s put aside the fact that the first part of the statement is a complete fabrication. Clinton has said on numerous occasions that she has no intention of abolishing the Second Amendment (something, by the way, that neither she nor the Supreme Court could actually do if they wanted to). Trump — along with countless other Republicans — keeps making this made-up charge, knowing full well it feeds the paranoia and anxiety of pro-gun voters, many of whom are already paranoid and anxious. It is emblematic of the fundamentally dishonest manner in which the GOP is conducting this presidential campaign.
But of course, the real headline from yesterday’s event was Trump’s dark insinuation that one way to stop Clinton from appointing judges to the Supreme Court would be to engage in armed insurrection … or assassinate Clinton.
The Trump campaign, of course, has argued that the candidate’s words were taken out of context and that he really meant that pro-Second Amendment voters should rally behind his candidacy. He was talking about the “power of unification,” claimed Trump aides in their best imitations of Baghdad Bob.
No one should take any of these claims seriously. Trump has long lost any benefit of the doubt. After all, it was a mere month ago that Al Baldasaro, a Trump supporter, New Hampshire Republican delegate and advisor on veteran’s issues, said Clinton should be “put in the firing line and shot for treason” because of her actions related to Benghazi.
While at the time the Trump campaign said it didn’t agree with Baldasaro’s comments, they were hardly condemned. That night I saw Baldasaro on the floor of the RNC in Cleveland, as if he hadn’t earlier in the day suggested that the Democratic nominee for president should be executed.
The reality, of course, is that Trump knows exactly what he’s doing. In the same way he embraced the racist birther movement and went full nativist in calling Mexican immigrants “rapists” and “murderers” and calling for a ban on all Muslims entering the country, Trump is playing to the basest elements of the American electorate. He’s been doing this so flagrantly and so promiscuously for the past 14 months that it’s not even worth debating any more. But now he’s doing it in a way that could have tragic consequences.
The fact is, when political leaders look the other way at calls for political violence — or in the case of Trump, tacitly embrace it — they are in a very real sense giving validation to those who might turn such rhetoric into action. Trump’s words are giving permission, even planting a seed in the heads of unstable individuals who are predisposed to violence. This is dangerous, even terrifying rhetoric that has no place in a mature democracy.
Indeed, earlier at the same event in North Carolina Trump said that Clinton will “destroy the country from within.” It’s a statement that in some ways is worse than his discussion of the Second Amendment because it suggests a Clinton victory would represent an existential threat to the United States … and how does one respond to an existential threat?
Just three weeks ago in writing about Baldasaro I noted the “cumulative impact of the constant denunciations of Clinton as a criminal, a felon, and even a traitor … imagine how these words could be interpreted by individuals both prone to violence and also well-armed. The thought is mildly terrifying … By failing to condemn these statements, Trump is giving them an air of legitimacy.”
Yesterday, Trump went even beyond that.
His words could empower someone to do something terrible — just as the incendiary rhetoric of the far right in Israel (like claims that Israel’s pre-1967 borders were the “borders of Auschwitz”) helped lead to the murder of Yitzhak Rabin.
Make no mistake: The man who seemingly has violated every political norm in this country crossed a terrifying line yesterday. Every Republican politician must swiftly and unambiguously condemn what Trump has said — and they must do it immediately.
For the first time in this presidential race I am genuinely afraid … that at some point in the future I might have to write again the same op-ed I wrote 20 years ago.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.