Donald Trump’s suggestion that “Second Amendment people” will know how to deal with President Hillary Clinton and any judges she appoints might seem like a shocking violation of American political norms. But they do have some precedent. While it’s true that no previous presidential nominee so openly welcomed the murder of a rival for the White House, there is a genuine American tradition of assassination incitement—in the world of tabloid journalism, anyway.
Placing Trump’s comments in this context helps illuminate his bizarre presidential campaign. While Trump makes little sense as a mainstream candidate vying for office, his incendiary words are perfectly appropriate if his goal is to make a name for himself in the world of sensationalistic television, an avenue he very well may pursue with Trump TV after the election ends.
At the beginning of the 20th century, William Randolph Hearst’s name was a byword for the Yellow Press. In his papers, he pursued a relentless vendetta against President William McKinley. In early 1901, Hearst’s New York Journal carried this poem about the assassination of Governor William Goebel of Kentucky:
The bullet that pierced Goebel’s breast
Can not be found in all the West;
Good reason, it is speeding here
To stretch McKinley on his bier.
A few months later, the Journal published an anti-McKinley editorial that argued, “If bad institutions and bad men can be got rid of only by killing, then the killing must be done.” Hearst disavowed the editorial, but when McKinley was assassinated by an anarchist in late 1901, the Hearst press was widely condemned as an instigator.
Later, the columnist Westbrook Pegler, now forgotten although he was the most famous right-wing journalist of the mid-20th century, got into trouble for similarly provocative words. Pegler, who worked for many years for the Hearst papers, once regretted that the 1933 assassin who tried to kill Franklin Delano Roosevelt and accidentally shot the mayor of Chicago “hit the wrong man.” In 1965, after he had been largely marginalized for his anti-Semitic tirades, Pegler wrote a column calling for the killing of Robert F. Kennedy, hoping that “some white patriot of the Southern tier will spatter [Kennedy’s] spoonful of brains in public premises before the snow flies.”
The heirs of Hearst and Pegler are today to be found in the right-wing media, where calls for political violence are all too common. In 2002, Ann Coulter (who defended Trump’s Second Amendment comment as a joke) said, “My only regret with Timothy McVeigh is he did not go to the New York Times building.” In a 2009 segment of his show, Glenn Beck concocted a strange fantasy about “put[ting] poison” in Nancy Pelosi’s wine, gleefully muttering, “I want you to drink it now. Drink it. Drink it. Drink it.” That same year on Fox News, Dick Morris said, “Those crazies in Montana who say, ‘We’re going to kill ATF agents because the U.N.’s going to take over’—well, they’re beginning to have a case.”
Pundits like Coulter and Beck have proven that there is a lucrative niche market in incitement. If Trump is running for the presidency, he’s doing it all wrong. But if he wants to be the next Ann Coulter, then suggesting Clinton should be murdered is a sure way to lock up a loyal audience.
Author’s note: Some of the quotations used here were originally used in a National Post article I wrote in 2010.