Back in March, Peter Beinart published a deeply unsettling piece in The Atlantic called “The Violence to Come.” Anticipating Donald Trump as the Republican nominee, he issued a chilling warning that America was “headed toward a confrontation, the likes of which it has not seen since 1968, between leftist activists, who believe in physical disruption as a means of drawing attention to injustice, and a candidate eager to forcibly put down that disruption in order to make himself look tough.”
Believing leftist protesters would be a prominent ingredient in this powder keg made sense at the time. As Beinart noted, a Black Lives Matter activist was attacked and called racial slurs at a Trump rally in Alabama. After a demonstrator was ejected from a rally in Las Vegas, the candidate himself declared, “I love the old days. You know what they used to do to guys like that when they were in a place like this? They’d be carried out on a stretcher.... I’d like to punch him in the face.”
These weren’t isolated incidents. Two weeks after Beinart’s piece, Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo wrote an even more dire article titled “Someone Will Die.” Flagging further examples of racism, anti-Semitism, and violence at rallies, he wrote, “It is the kind of climate where someone will eventually get killed.”
And then, mercifully, it never happened. Many expected violence at the Republican National Convention, but that didn’t happen. Periodic assaults have continued at Trump rallies—many more than in previous elections, which should never be normalized—but the worst worries of half a year ago didn’t come to pass, and the fear largely subsided.
Until this past week.
Donald Trump’s campaign is imploding, and his poll numbers plummeting. Unable, as ever, to accept the idea that he might lose legitimately, he escalated his claim last week that the election is “rigged.”
This kind of rhetoric isn’t new for Trump, who routinely traffics in conspiracy and shameless lying to absolve himself of responsibility. In 2012, he said President Barack Obama’s reelection was “a total sham” and called for “revolution.” This year, while Senator Ted Cruz was outmaneuvering him in the delegate race, Trump said the Republican primary was “rigged.” Then Trump tried making mischief among Democrats, hyping the idea that their primary was stacked against Bernie Sanders.
But Trump’s recent fear-mongering about the election results is extreme, even for him.
Trump’s talk of the general election being fixed began August 1, when he echoed radio conspiracy theorist Alex Jones in saying during a speech, “I’m afraid the election is going to be rigged.” Trump was even more definitive later that day, telling Sean Hannity that the November 8 vote was “going to be rigged.”
Of course, there’s no evidence for this, just as there’s no evidence of widespread voter fraud, but that hasn’t stopped Trump from stoking fear about “other communities,” like heavily black Philadelphia, stealing the election. Increasingly, though, this talk is leading to renewed fear about violence on Election Day and its aftermath.
Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke Jr., a prominent Trump supporter, tweeted on Saturday morning:
On the same day, The Boston Globe published a story in which Trump supporters in Cincinnati, Ohio, talked openly about violence—including assassinating Clinton. “If she’s in office, I hope we can start a coup. She should be in prison or shot,” one supporter told the paper. “We’re going to have a revolution and take them out of office if that’s what it takes. There’s going to be a lot of bloodshed.”
Sometime overnight Saturday, a Republican Party office in North Carolina was firebombed, and the words “Nazi Republicans get out of town or else” were spray-painted on an adjacent building.
By Sunday, Politico was reporting that the White House, the Clinton campaign, and leaders on Capitol Hill are all concerned about “violence—perhaps against Muslims, Latinos or any of the many other groups [Trump] has targeted in his campaign.”
It’s worth being concerned about.
Christopher Strain, a Florida Atlantic University historian and author of Reload: Rethinking Violence in American Life, told The New Republic he fears a spike in hate crimes after November, perhaps abetted by the open-carry movement. “A lot of the worst political violence in American history has been racialized, and there are shades of that in the Trump rallies,” Strain said.
The peacekeeping role may soon fall to Republican leaders like House Speaker Paul Ryan, who’s saying he’s “fully confident the states will carry out this election with integrity.” (Former George W. Bush spokesman Tony Fratto told Politico that Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and the Republican National Committee might “have to concede for [Trump], for the party. They just have to take things out of his hands.”) But Trump has been savaging Ryan lately, turning his supporters even more strongly against the GOP establishment. In one of many disparaging tweets speaker last week, Trump called the speaker a “very weak and ineffective leader.”
In this context, does it really matter what Ryan says? Does it really matter that Trump’s running mate Mike Pence insists, “We will absolutely accept the result of the election”? If election night arrives and the Republican Party acknowledges Trump has lost the election but Trump himself doesn’t, who are his supporters going to listen to?
What’s more, several high-profile Republicans are endorsing Trump’s rigged election narrative, showing no signs they’ll vouch for the legitimacy of the process. “They are attempting to rig this election,” Senator Jeff Sessions said on Saturday. “They will not succeed.” Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich on Sunday accused TV executives of a “coup d’etat” against Trump. And former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani pushed the voter fraud canard Sunday on CNN, saying, “I’m sorry, dead people generally vote for Democrats.”
Gabriel Schoenfeld, a former senior adviser to 2012 GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, surveyed these examples in a Sunday op-ed in the Daily News titled “As Donald Trump’s campaign flails, the violence and bloodshed will only get worse.” Ryan’s “implicit rebuke of Trump is at least a start if a characteristically timid one from the Republican party’s supposedly bold new leader,” he writes. “The main point is that Ryan fails to condemn Trump’s frighteningly dangerous game.”
That is the main point. With three weeks to go, it’s looking like Trump will lose this election. What he does next is entirely his call. He can step away graciously, surprising everyone and, because he has set the bar so low, even earning some slight respect. Or he can do what he’s more likely to do—protest, cry foul, and continue to whip up the forces of rage and resentment that have fueled his campaign. In this way, we’re still at the mercy of Donald Trump. And we’re there because of people like Paul Ryan.
Which is to say, if there’s violence on Election Day or thereafter, the candidate himself won’t be the only one to blame.