‘Bloodbath’ aside, Trump’s violent rhetoric is unambiguous

In an interview with Donald Trump that aired over the weekend, Fox News host Howard Kurtz presented Trump with a not-exactly-novel theory: that Trump uses “over the top, sometimes inflammatory language” to draw attention.

Trump conceded that “if you don’t use certain words, that maybe are not very nice words, nothing will happen.”

The weekend provided ample evidence of that dynamic, particularly when Trump invited yet another tempest with his violent rhetoric. This time, he warned of a “bloodbath” if he loses in November. Trump’s allies claim he’s being taken out of context and unfairly attacked.

To recap: Appearing at a rally in Ohio, Trump riffed on his proposal for a 100 percent tariff on Chinese-made cars to protect the U.S. auto industry.

“Now, if I don’t get elected,” Trump continued, “it’s going to be a bloodbath for the whole — that’s going to be the least of it. It’s going to be a bloodbath for the country.”

Here’s what we can say: Trump might indeed have been speaking metaphorically in this case. But the broader context here is vital. And that context is that Trump has repeatedly invoked the prospect of actual violence by his supporters while speaking about similar circumstances — his losing or facing criminal accountability, for example. We also saw a pronounced example of his supporters seizing on his rhetoric when they stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

Which makes it much more difficult to dismiss the “bloodbath” comment as overheated rhetoric. Trump is, at the very least, deliberately playing with fire. And this is merely the most recent example.

Trump backers and even some conservative Trump critics dismissed the comment as, more or less, standard-issue political rhetoric. Some suggested that Trump was merely talking about a “bloodbath” for the auto industry (even though Trump was clearly saying the “bloodbath” would extend beyond that industry).

Regardless, a focus on the one word misses the point. It’s not that this isolated comment is particularly egregious; it’s that it’s merely the latest example of this kind of rhetoric. And it’s often more direct:

And this doesn’t even account for the many, many examples of his alluding more suggestively to righteous violence by his supporters. He does this a lot. Sometimes it’s direct; sometimes it’s veiled and carries with it the plausible deniability that he craves.

But is it really ridiculous to suggest that the guy who warned of “riots,” “violence in the streets” and “death & destruction” if he were wronged might be gesturing in that direction again? Of course not.

More than that, history gives weight to comments like this. And that history includes Trump’s supporters turning violent after the 2020 election — and after they appeared to interpret his comments as encouragement.

At a 2020 presidential debate, Trump was asked to repudiate violence by white supremacists and the Proud Boys. Trump responded by telling the Proud Boys not to “stand down,” as had been suggested, but to “stand back and stand by.” That set off a fuss similar to the one we see today, with Trump allies and media critics asserting that this was much ado about nothing — just some awkward phrasing! Trump and his White House resisted calls to clarify for days.

Months later, the Proud Boys — who in real time appeared to interpret Trump’s comments as a call to action — played a central role in the Capitol insurrection.

Also interpreting Trump’s various comments as a call to action, according to their legal defenses: many other Jan. 6 defendants.

With that kind of history, it’s certainly a choice for Trump to keep talking like this. And there was even a time when Republicans worried about what Trump might be fomenting.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) said explicitly in April 2016 that Trump, even at that point, had “a consistent pattern of inciting violence.”

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), in dropping out of the race, directly linked Trump’s rhetoric to violent and angry clashes in Chicago after a Trump rally was postponed.

“The broader anger that now exists in the American political discourse is a direct result of the fact that words have consequences,” Rubio said. “That when you run for President of the United States or if you are President of the United States … you can’t just take on the attitude that I’m going to say whatever I want.”

Rubio added: “You can’t say whatever you want. It has real-life consequences for people in this country, and all over the world. And we’re starting to see it bear out.”

Rubio’s warning, in particular, is applicable to what we see today. Trump has shown no sign of moderating his rhetoric despite the example of Jan. 6. Whether he’s doing it to merely provoke, because he wants to warn his critics, or because he actually wants his supporters to be ready to rise up, that doesn’t change the fact that it can be dangerous — in a way that Trump, those around him and even his many defenders must know.

You can argue that one comment is being blown out of proportion. But the track record here is clear.

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