At a weekend rally, President Trump launched a riff that, even by the feverish standards of his closing campaign argument, stands out for its brutal authoritarian overtones. The president mocked Antifa demonstrators: “You see these little arms, these little arms,” he shouted, forming his fingers into tiny circles to illustrate their puny biceps. And then he invited his supporters to imagine these weaklings having to fight against Trump’s own militant cadres. “Where are the Bikers for Trump? Where are the police? Where are the military? Where are — ICE? Where are the border patrol? No,” he continued, lamenting the restraint his sentries have displayed, “we’ve taken a lot, we’ve taken a lot.”
This is a revealing setpiece of authoritarian theater. There is, first of all, the evocation of strength as a moral signifier. Trump’s people are strong and good, and his opponents weak and bad, a classically fascist ethos. Second, he conflates his private political militia, “Bikers for Trump,” with government agencies that are not supposed to operate as a political arm of the president (police, military, ICE.) Trump, of course, has always believed the government’s law enforcement apparatus should be at his personal command, and has in fact deployed the military to the border for the benefit of his party’s campaign messaging.
Third, as he has done throughout his presidency, he also conflates Antifa (the miniscule faction operating totally outside of, and frequently at odds with the Democratic Party) with the opposition as a whole. “If the radical resistance — and that’s what they are, radical resistance — they will move immediately to reverse America’s progress.” The term “radical resistance” treats the political opposition writ large as a dangerous, violent, and essentially illegal movement.
And finally, Trump is tantalizing his supporters with the prospect of bloodshed. Their side has been set upon, and yet despite all their strength, he imagines some form of excessive restraint has held them back from administering to their tormentors the beating they so clearly deserve. He is wafting into the air the scent of blood.
The Republican Party as a whole has echoed versions of this theme by Trump, depicting Democrats as a “resistance mob.” Trump’s forays against violence play exactly the same role as his denunciations of corruption. He is magnifying marginal features of politics (Hillary Clinton’s speeches to Wall Street) in order to justify violations several orders of magnitude larger (Trump running a private, undisclosed business empire in office). Trump fixates on the negligible threat posed by Antifa not because he wants to build up the value of nonviolence but because he wishes to tear it down. Political violence is not the problem, it is the solution.
Trump’s rhetoric about the non-party-controlled news — “fake news,” “enemies of the people” — reveals this strategy in a way that is far more insidious than even his critics in the media seem to grasp. Reporters have treated his rhetoric as a dangerous game with unintended consequences. The consequences seem to be very much Trump’s intent.
A recently aired interview with Jim Vandehei of Axios perfectly illustrates the incomprehension that has greeted the president’s dark threats. Vandehei pleads with Trump to understand the dangers he might be unleashing.
“What scares the crap out of me is that, when you’re saying ‘enemy of the people, enemy of the people,’ … what happens if all of a sudden someone gets shot, somebody shoots one of these reporters?” Vandehei pleads. Trump replies, “It is my only form of fighting back.”
Watch the entire exchange, and take note of what Trump does not say here. The easiest answer Trump could give would be to deflect the concern as overblown. But at no point does he reassure the palpably frightened Vandehei that he is not inciting violence, and that his supporters understand that they should refrain from radical acts. Instead Trump lets the threat hang in the air, and justifies it as his only weapon against the slanders against him.
This intent was even more clearly visible last Friday, when Trump parried a reporter’s question about whether he was instigating violence. “You know what, you’re creating violence by your question. You are creating. You,” Trump insisted. “The fake news is creating violence … I’ll tell you what, if the media would write correctly and write accurately and write fairly, you’d have a lot less violence in the country.”
There is very little ambiguity about his point. Trump is warning the media that its critical coverage is provoking violence. His proposed remedy is not a cessation of violence but instead a cessation of critical coverage. Reporters seem to think that Trump will tone down by rhetoric if he can be made to understand that it is goading his supporters to violence.
It’s not that he doesn’t understand. Trump understands the connection between incitement and response perfectly well. It’s not even that he doesn’t care. Trump calculates that the threat of bombs and bullets will force reporters to bend the knee. This is what he means by “fighting back.”