One day after his widely discussed “reboot” in which he did nothing more than read basic Republican economic talking points from a teleprompter, Donald Trump uttered perhaps his most outrageous – and dangerous – ad-lib yet. And that’s saying something for a campaign in which he’s criticised John McCain for being a prisoner of war, characterised Mexicans as rapists, called for banning Muslims from coming into the country, picked a fight with a Gold Star family and urged Russia to hack his political opponent.
Speaking to a crowd in Wilmington, North Carolina, Tuesday, Trump expressed concern about Hillary Clinton possibly picking Supreme Court justices and other judges. He then said, “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 that soak in for a second. One of the two major-party nominees for president just called for “Second Amendment people” to “do” something about his political opponent’s judges. According to the Trump campaign’s rapid response team, he was talking about those “Second Amendment people” coming together politically – “unification” as they called it. The Clinton campaign, and pretty much the entire Internet, saw it differently: as a clear suggestion of violence against a political opponent.
It’s hard not to side with the Clinton campaign here. What Trump said was that a particular group – those who are defined by rallying around guns – should do something about Clinton and her judicial nominees. What can people who rally around guns do that’s different than others? Use those guns.
But it’s really irrelevant what Trump actually meant, because enough people will hear Trump’s comments and think he’s calling for people to take up arms against Clinton, her judges or both. Though most of the people hearing that call may claim he was joking, given what we know about people taking up arms in this country, there will undoubtedly be some people who think he was serious and consider the possibility.
In other words, what Trump just did is engage in so-called stochastic terrorism. This is an obscure and non-legal term that has been occasionally discussed in the academic world for the past decade and a half, and it applies with precision here. Stochastic terrorism, as described by a blogger who summarised the concept several years back, means using language and other forms of communication “to incite random actors to carry out violent or terrorist acts that are statistically predictable but individually unpredictable.”
Let’s break that down in the context of what Trump said. Predicting any one particular individual following his call to use violence against Clinton or her judges is statistically impossible. But we can predict that there could be a presently unknown lone wolf who hears his call and takes action in the future.
Stated differently: Trump puts out the dog-whistle knowing that some dog will hear it, even though he doesn’t know which dog.
Those of us who work against anti-abortion violence unfortunately know all about this. Valerie Tarico wrote about this form of terrorism following the Planned Parenthood murders in Colorado Springs last November. The pattern she noted there is 100 percent applicable to Donald Trump and his supporters right now – except that we haven’t yet had the major act of violence at the end of the string. As Tarico wrote:
“1. A public figure with access to the airwaves or pulpit demonises a person or group of persons.
2. With repetition, the targeted person or group is gradually dehumanised, depicted as loathsome and dangerous—arousing a combustible combination of fear and moral disgust.
3. Violent images and metaphors, jokes about violence, analogies to past “purges” against reviled groups, use of righteous religious language—all of these typically stop just short of an explicit call to arms.
4. When violence erupts, the public figures who have incited the violence condemn it—claiming no one could possibly have foreseen the ‘tragedy.'”
This explains Donald Trump’s campaign against Hillary Clinton to a letter. He has 1) demonised her whenever he can by calling her “Crooked Hillary” and constantly degrading her; 2) organised a convention around which the central theme, repeated over and over, was that Clinton is a criminal who needs to be locked up, clearly using fear and moral disgust as motivators; and 3) is now using violent metaphors (or “jokes” if that’s what you think his statements were) against her, just short of an explicit call to arms.
Now we just have to hope that #4 doesn’t come about – that violence does not erupt. Though, if it does, we know exactly what Trump and his supporters will say: that they never could have foreseen this tragedy.
In the world I’m most familiar with, the world of anti-abortion violence, we see this again and again from leaders of the anti-abortion movement. Tarico’s post linked above is one example. This cartoon, drawn following Dr. George Tiller’s assassination in 2009 (and dug up Tuesday by Michelle Kinsey Bruns), is another perfect illustration.
Following Trump’s comments, we all have to hope (and, if it’s your cup of tea, pray) that it doesn’t come to this – that the lone wolves out there don’t read this as urging someone to take the next step in the cycle.
Because what Trump has done is clear: He has incited violence against Hillary Clinton and/or her judges, even if he doesn’t know exactly who will carry that violence out.