by Neil H. Buchanan
Weirdly, Donald Trump has recently altered his stream-of-consciousness speeches at his rallies to include musings about the possibility of losing the 2020 election. He has even talked about leaving the country, which has provided no end of delight to late-night comedians and pundits. But does this mean that he is actually preparing for the possibility of losing and -- gasp! -- admitting that he has lost, followed by a peaceful exit from the White House?
Would that it were so, but we need to remember that we are talking about a person with an incredibly short attention span who leaves not even the most fleeting thought unspoken. That he has apparently occasionally considered that he might lose the election tells the world nothing about what he will do if (when?) the time comes. He has put in all kinds of spadework to allow his claims of voter fraud to take root and ultimately blossom, and his legal team has already spent ungodly amounts of time trying to suppress votes in Texas, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere. Trump's tossed off musings about losing mean nothing.
Most importantly, the biggest story continues to be that Trump simply cannot stop encouraging his most extreme supporters to be ready to support him with violence. Blood has already been shed because of Trump this year. Shockingly but not at all shockingly, he seems to want more blood to flow.
After the first presidential debate last month, much was made -- and rightly so -- of Trump's "stand back and stand by" comment when asked to denounce white supremacists. Then, at his replacement event for the second debate (the town hall on NBC with the weird pro-Trump plant sitting behind him, nodding enthusiastically), he finally actually said that he denounces white supremacy.
Indeed, Trump denounced white supremacy multiple times in that exchange with Savannah Guthrie. Guthrie, however, spoke for many when she responded: "[I]t feels sometimes you’re hesitant to do so, like you wait a beat." Trump, of course, then became petulant and tried to change the subject to Antifa (again): "I denounce Antifa, and I denounce these people on the left that are burning down our cities, that are run by Democrats who don’t know what they’re doing."
Of course, virtually all of the legal citations of left-identifiable people at the summer's anti-racism protests were for things like graffiti and trespassing, whereas pro-Trumpers were threatening and killing people, but why let that little detail bother us?
For anyone other than Trump, one could almost feel some sympathy toward someone who has repeatedly answered a question without managing to convince anyone that he means what he says.
But that, obviously, is because Trump so clearly does not mean what he says. Even his pliant advisors and campaign sycophants decided that they had to convince him that his non-denunciation of white supremacists -- and his outright encouragement of them, as those dangerous people themselves interpreted it -- could not stand, but Trump truly cannot bring himself to say the words with any conviction. "I denounce white supremacy. Okay?" No, not okay. You made it not okay.
About a dozen years ago, at the end of the first meeting of my Federal Income Taxation class, a student excitedly told me that he and a friend were about to drive to New Hampshire to join a vigil in support of a couple who were holed up in their house, threatening to kill any federal agents who tried to arrest them. They had, among other things, refused to pay taxes under one of the bogus "tax protester" claims that have floated around for years.
After the student told me this with a beaming smile on his face, I told him that I thought that those people were wrong. He asked why. "Well, they're threatening to kill law enforcement officers, which I think is a bad thing." That statement is high on the list of things that I never thought I would need to say out loud. (Much to my relief, that student dropped the class. Indeed, as I understand it, he soon dropped out of law school entirely.)
Moreover, I pointed out that even now-former Congressman Ron Paul, the hero of the anti-tax right (and father of the even more unglued Senator Rand Paul), had denounced the New Hampshire couple. My student's response was inadvertently illuminating: "Oh, he has to say that to sound good in public. But we all know he doesn't really believe that."
And so it is with Trump. When he finally denounces white supremacists, we (most definitely including his supporters) know that he doesn't really believe that. Trump is forced, obviously against his every instinct, to denounce people who embrace political violence on his behalf, and although he can spit out the words, he cannot get anyone to believe that he means it.
It is important for journalists and politicians to continue to put Trump on the spot because of his insincerity, because it continues to rankle him in a way that could cause him to revert to his true character and say, "You know what? I actually don't denounce them." In fact, that is almost exactly what led to Trump's infamous "very fine people on both sides" comments, which actually came a day after he had robotically read a script in which he purported to deplore the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville.
Even so, Trump and his supporters will continue to say, "Well, how many times will it take for anyone to believe the denunciation?" And the answer is: "Until he actually seems to mean it, rather than saying it just to say it." If he cannot get to the point where he actually is repulsed by white supremacists -- and he obviously cannot -- he is stuck in a loop of his own making. Groundhog Day for the KKK.
Which still leaves the world wondering exactly why Trump is incapable of honestly denouncing white supremacists. In a column two weeks ago ("Be Very Afraid of Trump"), Professor Dorf offered "three non-exclusive possibilities: (1) Trump is a racist/white supremacist himself; (2) Trump is an egomaniac who never wants to disavow anyone's support because he so enjoys bathing in admiration; and/or (3) Any kind of backtracking would feel to Trump like weakness, which is off brand."
These are all plausible theories, but I think that it omits the most important explanation: (4) Trump wants white supremacists to engage in domestic terrorism to keep him in office. Even if Trump were not a racist/white supremacist, even if he were not an egomaniac, and even if he were secure enough to backtrack, he knows that lawless mobs of violent racists not only love him but are itching to go after his enemies to keep him in power.
This is clearly why Trump supported the 17-year-old from Illinois who killed two people and injured a third in Kenosha in late August. It is why Trump has been calling on his armed supporters to intimidate people at the polls. And it is why Trump so obviously panicked and froze up during the first debate, when Chris Wallace tossed what should have been an easy home run ball over the plate for Trump.
Watching the wheels of Trump's mind spinning -- "Who do you mean? I don't know them?" -- was a sight to behold. He cannot possibly imagine that firmly denouncing white supremacists will cost him votes -- any votes at all, not just net, because (like my former student) they are such true believers that they know when he is lying about disagreeing with them. But he does not need their votes nearly as much as he needs their thirst for blood.
Back at the NBC town hall event, Guthrie pivoted from Trump's pro forma denunciations of white supremacists to the crazy conspiracy theorists who believe that Democrats are part of a satanic pedophile ring. Having just done the best he could to pretend to denounce white supremacists, Trump whiffed again. To quote from his rambling evasions would be a waste of time, but he again thought about a small group of violent people and said, "I don't know much, but I like what I see."
How violent? The Washington Post ran a horrific story this morning chronicling the depressing fate of the now-former Democratic candidate for a U.S. House seat in rural Georgia, who had the bad luck to be in a district where the Republican primary winner was a woman who is a big supporter of this uniquely dangerous conspiracy theory. This poor guy not only dropped out of the race but fled the state in fear for his life.
One of the most chilling passages in the article was this description of a rally for the Republican nominee:
"Onstage, a guest speaker was talking about 'a time when you will be asked to shed another man’s blood because he is a threat to your very way of life.' Another talked about 'the communist Democrats.' Another said that vice-presidential candidate Kamala D. Harris 'wants to come to your house and take your guns away.'"
One attendee is quoted as saying, "I think people are waking up," while his wife adds that "[t]he silent majority is silent no more." But that first quotation -- "a time when you will be asked to shed another man’s blood because he is a threat to your very way of life" -- is just too disturbing not to cause serious worry about what Trump has already set in motion.
Does this represent all of the people who will vote for Trump? There is still every reason to doubt it, but make no mistake that very large numbers of them are racists (while the rest are willing to look the other way). In a recent poll, when choosing between two statements -- "I would prefer the U.S. to be made up of people from all over the world," or "I would prefer the U.S. to be a nation primarily made up of people from western European heritage" -- only 25 percent of Republicans agreed with the former.
As The Post's Jennifer Rubin put it:
“Republicans may not want to acknowledge the implicitly racist views in their party, but the refusal to recognize that Black protesters are trying to make our country better; the aversion to diversity; the failure to acknowledge racial injustice; and the overwhelming conviction that the Confederate flag (85 percent) and monuments to Confederate soldiers (90 percent) are symbols of ‘Southern pride’ (not racism in recognition that the Civil War was fought to preserve slavery) are frightening indications that racism persists within the GOP — no doubt inflamed by a racist president. The siege mentality expressed by many in the MAGA crowd and the violent groups Trump refuses to directly denounce stem from a sense they are ‘losing’ power and control in American society.”
This is where racism leads. People who think that white people have it harder than anyone else in America thrill to a demagogue who tells them what they want to hear about inferior "others," and even if very few of them would engage in racist violence, their support of the inciter in the Oval Office encourages those who are spoiling for a bloody showdown.
Happily, even the most obtuse Trump apologists whom I know personally have gotten off the Trump bandwagon out of fear of this kind of violence. That is good -- very late in the game, but good. But unless Trump somehow becomes convinced that he needs to tell his supporters not to resort to violence -- and get them to believe that he means it -- we are likely soon to see even more Trump supporters turning their violent fantasies into grim actions.
Typically, I end my more depressing columns with some kind of sardonic joke. Today, however, graveyard humor seems a bit too on the nose.