By former Assemblyman Steven Sanders
There are things said in the heat of a political campaign battle that you shrug off. There are other things which are said that can be taken as hyperbole. But Donald Trump twice crossed a line last week that is both dangerous and distorted and entirely unprecedented in modern American political campaigns.
First Trump claimed (incorrectly) that Hillary Clinton wishes to abolish the Second Amendment which provides protection for gun ownership. He then went on to say that if Clinton is elected president and appointed justices to the Supreme Court who concur in her point of view, the Second Amendment would be done away with “and there will be nothing that you can do about that, but maybe the Second Amendment people can… I dunno.”
This “joke” about people who possess weapons “doing something about it” can surely be interpreted and processed by sick minds as a call to take action against Hillary Clinton to preserve the Second Amendment and their guns. The Trump people say that their candidate was only talking about voting. But the candidate did not actually say that but rather implied something much differently. Responsible and mature people don’t even joke about things like that. We have witnessed too many mentally disturbed people taking cues to commit violence and we have seen too many American politicians slain in our own lifetimes to be so cavalier about that. Oh and by the way, a president cannot repeal the Second Amendment. That can only happen with a 2/3 majority vote in both houses, the House of Representatives and the Senate, and then the approval by at least three quarters of the individual states. But details, details, details.
Then Mr. Trump repeated three times at a rally that “Barack Obama founded ISIS” and that ISIS is now “honoring Obama.” Ok, so everybody knows that Trump was not being literal in his comments… or do they? Over the years people have propagated the myth (including Trump himself) that Barack Obama is not a loyal American or even a natural born American citizen, and that he is actually a Muslim with sympathies towards Islamic extremists and jihadists. And so some simpletons who get all their news from nutty conspiracy theorists, cable news programs and the National Enquirer hear that the Republican candidate for president is accusing the president of the United States with “founding ISIS.” So what is a good patriot with a gun to do?
Before the assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas back in 1963 there were prominent leaflets and posters distributed across that city accusing Kennedy of “treason,” probably for his advocacy of a moratorium on further testing of nuclear weapons by any country, or perhaps his advocacy for civil rights. It doesn’t matter really. What mattered is that a person or persons thought that John Kennedy was a traitor and treason is punishable by death. One of Trump’s supporters has even said as much about Hillary Clinton.
We expect, and to some extent accept as normal excessive political rhetoric.
But what is coming from candidate Trump has entered a totally new realm of unchartered language and consequences. Donald Trump seems totally oblivious and unconcerned about the words that he is putting out over the airwaves and into tweeter cyberspace. He does not seem to understand that messages that come from a celebrity or a perceived leader have impact and persuasion.
David Berkowitz, the infamous Son of Sam who went on a killing spree in New York City during the summer of 1977, claimed that he heard voices telling him to kill. And that is just what he did. In this case, Donald Trump is actually giving voice to messages of hate that can easily be interpreted by troubled minds as a call for violent action. Some will surely contemplate killing.
Even in a free society, there are reasonable limits on free speech. You cannot yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater without being arrested for inciting a panic. Candidates for office, especially high office, should realize that all kinds of people are listening, stable people and otherwise, and because of that they need to be especially careful about what they say.
Long ago we gave up on politicians being totally accurate and objective. But we have never seen a campaign where falsehoods are parlayed with subtle suggestions of violence, or trying to agitate supporters against an opponent who it is inferred is a criminal or traitor.
It is not enough for the Trump campaign to explain what their candidate really meant to say after he uttered some outlandish statement. If candidate Donald Trump cannot say what he actually means without resorting to exaggerated and dangerous rhetoric, if he cannot control his impulse to bash his adversaries with slurs, innuendo and crude bombast, is this really the person we want as the exemplar of America and the role model for our children?
Is winning at any cost all that Donald Trump cares about?