It’s not what Trump says; it’s what MAGA supporters hear

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Cagle Cartoons

Cagle Cartoons

By the time you read this, there’s a good chance that we’ll have already stopped talking about former president Donald Trump’s notorious “bloodbath” comment of March 16.

Most provocative Trumpian tropes have a short half-life. They’re quickly eclipsed by subsequent remarks, such as Trump’s musings about cutting Social Security and Medicare and his recent assertion that Jews who vote Democratic hate Israel and hate Judaism.

Still, the “bloodbath” remark is worth a column’s consideration: Here’s the expression in question:

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“Now if I don’t get elected, 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.”

Trump apologists quickly pointed out that the context of his remark involved the automobile industry and argued that the reference was metaphorical. But that sounds like a hasty, not entirely convincing, rationalization.

The statement, in fact, could be parsed in a much darker way, as well, but there’s not much point in doing so: What’s important is not what Trump says or means or thinks he means, but what his most devoted supporters actually hear.

On Jan. 6, for example, after Trump falsely asserted that the election had been stolen, he challenged his followers to march to the capitol and “…fight like hell and if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.”

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He might have meant something like: March to the capitol grounds and make speeches opposing the certification of the election; try to contact your representatives and urge them to vote against certification; wave banners advocating “Stop the Steal”; set up tables and urge passersby to sign petitions against certification.

But whatever Trump meant by “fight,” thousands of his supporters understood him to mean that they should break into the capitol, assault police officers, occupy the Senate chamber and rifle through desks, do harm to Nancy Pelosi if they could find her and threaten to hang Mike Pence.

If Trump’s words were misinterpreted by the insurrectionists, he didn’t appear to be horrified by the violence. On the contrary, he delayed several hours before calling them off, despite entreaties by officials, staff and even his family.

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We could note other examples: During a debate in the 2016 campaign, Trump was challenged to disavow the white supremacist Proud Boys. The best he could come up with was “Stand back and stand by.” What he meant is unclear, but I’m guessing that the Proud Boys heard “Stand by” more clearly than “Stand back.” Indeed, they were ready on Jan. 6.

Does Trump really believe that Democrats are “vermin”? That the press is “scum.” That some women are “dogs.” That many nations inhabited by people of color are “s—hole” countries?

That’s the problem with careless language and ill-considered metaphors. Once you express them you lose control, and they take on the meanings and connotations that your hearers apply to them.

If Trump really meant a metaphorical “bloodbath” that is confined to the automobile industry, he’s depending heavily on his audience to make that nuanced distinction and forgetting that many of them are already prepared and eager to “fight.”

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Here’s a relevant question: If Trump loses in 2024, whether by a little or a landslide, will he peacefully concede? It’s hard to imagine. But terms such as “bloodbath” crank up the temperature considerably. And whether Trump uses them figuratively or literally, what his supporters hear is more important than what he says.

Given that “bloodbath” is only one of an extended set of belligerent terms that Trump is fond of using; given that recent polls indicate that up to 39% of Republicans believe that political violence is sometimes justified and necessary; given that our nation is awash in weapons; and given that Trump has convinced his supporters that the existence of our nation is at stake, it’s naïve to believe that this election will end peacefully.

It’s not clear that Trump is advocating for a literal “bloodbath,” but given his behavior on Jan. 6, it’s clear that he’s open to one.

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John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, lives in Texas and can be reached at jcrispcolumns@gmail.com.


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