I write a lot about race, gender, and identity-based violence. One of the things I hate in these public conversations is the constant prioritization of intent over impact, and how the stated purpose of a terrible law, practice, or comment somehow becomes secondary to their actual effects on people. I thought about this again on Tuesday, as I watched Donald Trump’s defenders attempt to explain away his clear implication that should his rival Hillary Clinton be elected, the only way to stop her from abolishing the Second Amendment through her newly appointed Supreme Court justices would be to assassinate her. Or them. Or, perhaps, both.
“If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks,” Trump said at his Wilmington, North Carolina, rally earlier that day. “Although the Second Amendment people — maybe there is, I don’t know.”
Though there is no justifying that remark, there were plenty of Trump campaign attempts at doing just that. Jason Miller, the campaign’s senior communications advisor, issued a garbled response about “the power of unification,” then told CBS News that Trump was “obviously talking about American voters who are passionate about their Second Amendment rights and advocating they use that power at the ballot box.” (He wasn’t; in order to pick Supreme Court justices, you have to be president already.) In an interview later Tuesday night, Trump spit out a word salad that attempted to echo Miller but didn’t contain anything about voting, nor an apology. Trump spokeswoman Katrina Pierson said that the Republican presidential nominee wasn’t talking about voting at all. Instead, she said, he was merely suggesting an assassination could happen, not that it should. Because Trump doesn’t intend for it to happen. And that, to those trying to defend indefensible words, is what matters most.
Trump’s words, and his campaign’s responses to them, are nothing less than dangerous. They’re possibly even lethal. Hillary Clinton doesn’t lack enemies, and we don’t have to theorize about the violent nature of Trump’s live audiences. We’ve already seen it manifest time and again since his campaign began, whether it be via assaults on protesters or online harassment of anyone who doesn’t want to “Make America Great Again.” Trump offers his supporters all the rhetorical red meat they need to get volcanically angry at the target of the day: Muslims, immigrants, African-Americans, women, the media, whomever. This was the ethos of his entire convention in Cleveland, and it continued on to that North Carolina stage.
It’s good, at least, that the Secret Service — the same group that protects Trump — was wise enough to understand that his comments could be construed as a threat. They reportedly spoke to his campaign, which responded that he did not “intend to incite violence.” As if that is what is most important.
Some have hypothesized that, given his past 180-degree turns on many of his current campaign positions, Trump doesn’t actually mean anything he’s saying. That he just wants to win, by any means necessary, and he’s found a group of voters to exploit. That may be true, but who cares? Words like his, regardless of intent, can get someone killed.
Impugning all supporters of gun rights as potential assassins is careless, certainly. It’s shocking to see the Republican nominee be so cavalier when speaking about the life of his opponent. Someone in his audience could hear that and not take it as a joke; instead, they’ll hear instructions.
It’s a waste of time to debate whether Trump believes any of the racist, misogynist, or otherwise inciteful things he says, including Tuesday’s remark. It doesn’t even matter if he emerged today repentant, offering that he “didn’t mean” that someone should take violent action against Clinton. He has put her life at greater risk, and possibly those of current and future Supreme Court justices. We’re way past intent at this point. It may matter in a court of law, but it is irrelevant when considering incendiary rhetoric. Trump just gave more oxygen to a flame that is already burning.