Trump’s violent rhetoric charts his campaign warpath

Republicans shrug at Trump's dangerous attacks while his authoritarian vision collides with multiple criminal and civil trials against him, Alex Woodward reports

Thursday 30 November 2023 18:14 GMT
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News networks should be taken off air and investigated for treason. The nation’s top military official should be executed. A state judge presiding over a trial against him, and the attorney general suing him, should be arrested. People seeking asylum in the US are “poisoning the blood of our country” and should be turned away if they don’t accept “our religion.” Drug dealers should get the death sentence. “Liberal Jews” are voting to “destroy America and Israel.” The regime will “root out” political opponents who “live like vermin”.

Donald Trump’s latest violent, authoritarian visions in his 2024 campaign for the presidency are building on his platform of self-described retribution.

They are also increasingly colliding with the multiple criminal investigations and lawsuits against him, as prosecutors and judges hope to rely on gag orders to rein in his rhetoric, which has invited hundreds of abusive messages and credible death threats from his supporters against the judges and prosecutors involved.

Not that those orders ever stopped him – he violated a gag order in his civil fraud trial in New York, twice, incurring $15,000 in fines, paid by check from one of his attorneys.

After an appeals court judge temporarily paused a gag order that prohibited all parties in the case from disparaging the court’s staff, Mr Trump repeatedly unleashed on the court’s chief clerk, the attorney general suing him, and the judge overseeing the case, as well as members of his family. That gag order is back in place.

He sees the criminal indictments and civil cases against him as part of a Democratic conspiracy that is “weaponising” the federal government to keep him away from the White House, and he appears ready to do the same to his political opponents if he’s elected.

In a late-night post on his Truth Social on 28 November, he said that the four grand jury indictments, 91 criminal charges, fraud lawsuits and sexual abuse and defamation claims against him have opened “Pandora’s Box,” and he warned President Joe Biden to stop them “before it’s too late.”

Trump calls political opponents ‘vermin’

The leading candidate for the 2024 Republican nomination for president is giving his supporters permission to dehumanise and degrade his political opponents as he does, priming their acceptance of political violence against the “other” side, while absolving them of responsibility for it, according to urgent warnings from scholars and legal analysts.

Historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a scholar of authoritarianism and the author of Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present, writes that “violence is now Trump’s brand.”

His depiction of political opponents and non-white immigrants as existential threats, defence of January 6 rioters who stormed the US Capitol to overturn election results, and his praise for authoritarian leaders join his broader campaign “to re-educate Americans to see violence as justified, patriotic, and even morally righteous,” according to Ms Ben-Ghiat.

“But to get people to lose their aversion to violence, savvy authoritarians also dehumanize their enemies,” she added. “That’s what Trump is doing. Hitler used this ploy from the very start, calling Jews the ‘black parasites of the nation’ in a 1920 speech. By the time Hitler got into power in 1933 and translated dehumanizing rhetoric into repressive policies, Germans had heard these messages for over a decade.”

In his Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler wrote about the “contamination of the blood” and “the poison which has invaded the national body” from an “influx of foreign blood,” words behind the so-called “great replacement” conspiracy theory that has also fuelled white supremacist groups, racist mass shootings and far-right media commentary.

Mr Trump has invoked literal “blood and soil” rhetoric in recent weeks. In a September interview with right-wing media outlet The National Pulse, he said migrants who seek asylum in the US “come from prisons … mental institutions and insane asylums.”

“We know they’re terrorists. Nobody has ever seen anything like we’re witnessing right now. It is a very sad thing for our country. It’s poisoning the blood of our country,” he said.

At a September rally in Iowa, where he pledged “the largest domestic deportation operation in American history” if he’s elected, Mr Trump said migrants are infecting “the blood of the country” and “destroying our country.”

Donald Trump appears at his civil fraud trial in New York on 6 November.

Roughly three months from Super Tuesday, as Mr Trump coalesces Republican support as the presumptive GOP nominee, with scant warnings or criticism from members of his party, what remains of any inter-party fights about the party’s future are likely to merge with Mr Trump’s warpath.

The Republican Party has largely adopted Mr Trump’s grievance- and resentment-based politics relying on his volatile language, said Shane Burley, author of Why We Fight: Essays on Fascism, Resistance, and Surviving the Apocalypse and Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It.

“That’s the entire reason for the GOP to exist at this point,” he told The Independent. “With Trump leading one [wing] and national conservatives leaving the other. Both are based on re-channeling class anxiety into a sort of nationalist, racist, xenophobic and angry framework. That’s their entire existence now. That’s the status quo.”

Mr Trump’s campaign views him as “the only legitimate candidate, ‘he needs to go back, we need to take out the deep state,’” Mr Burley said. “It’s a very basic hero narrative, which is why when Trump loses again, if Trump loses again, and he’ll say that he was stolen, there could be real serious acts of violence.”

That “cruelty is the point” theme “will define how they build an electoral strategy, period,” he says. “That may end for them with the election, but it moves into people’s lives in really profound ways. That’s going to echo out through all kinds of institutions.”

The Independent has requested comment from Mr Trump’s campaign.

Trump suggests using DOJ and FBI to indict political rivals

During his presidency, Mr Trump called journalists and news outlets “fake news” roughly 2,000 times, according to an analysis from The Independent. His attacks amounted to an average of more than one daily broadside against the press and build on a long legacy of attempts to undermine his critics that continued well after his time in the White House.

Mr Trump routinely labels journalists “the enemy of the people,” has threatened to throw them and their sources in jail, and pledged to investigate networks for treason.

“Our so-called government should come down hard on them and make them pay for their illegal activity,” Mr Trump wrote on his Truth Social on 28 November, the same night he vowed to prosecute his political rivals. “Much more to come, watch!”

His threats to “weaponize the presidency against media outlets that are critical of him are shameful and dangerous, just like his prior rants about imprisoning journalists and their sources,” Seth Stern, director of advocacy at the Freedom of the Press Foundation, told The Independent in the wake of Mr Trump’s threats to NBC.

“Now’s the time to make sure that a potential second Trump administration doesn’t have the tools to carry out his anti-press agenda,” he added.

J Michael Luttig, a retired federal judge appointed by Republican president George HW Bush, told MSNBC that “the purpose and the intent” of Mr Trump’s attacks are to “delitigimise” the very institutions seeking to hold him accountable in the face of multiple criminal trials.

“The former president, unfortunately, has largely succeeded in doing exactly that,” Mr Luttig said.

Millions of Americans – roughly 4.4 per cent of the nation’s adult population – believe violence is justified to keep Mr Trump in the White House, according to a July report from the University of Chicago’s Project on Security & Threats research centre. Violent support for the former president surged following his first federal indictment, the report found.

A separate survey of Americans after the 2022 midterm elections found that a significant percentage consider political violence – including “violence, threats, intimidation or harassment” – acceptable in certain scenarios, with roughly 20 per cent of respondents believing such violence was at least a “little” acceptable if their preferred candidate lost an election.

“The prohibitively high cost to the nation at this point, over the last three years, if not longer, [is that] the former president has normalized his behavior and his delegitimising and dehumanizing rhetoric into our political culture, where it will stay forever,” Mr Luttig said.

Donald Trump speaks at a campaogn rally in Iowa on 18 November.

Lawyers for New York Supreme Court Judge Arthur Engoron and New York Attorney General Letitia James argued that a gag order is necessary to protect the safety of the court’s staff surrounding a civil trial alleging fraud in the Trump family business.

A sworn statement from a top security official with the state court’s system revealed that “hundreds of threats, disparaging and harassing comments and antisemitic messages” have followed Mr Trump’s attacks.

Mr Trump’s attorneys have downplayed those threats, claiming that the “sole cognizable justification” to gag the former president “is that an unknown third party may react in a hostile or offensive manner” to his speech.

On his Truth Social platform, Mr Trump also shared a series of conspiratorial posts from far-right activist and failed congressional candidate Laura Loomer, who has amplified a series of unsubstantiated claims about Judge Engoron and his “disgusting” wife, children, brother, niece and nephew, none of whom seem to have anything to do with the fraud case in New York.

“I hope their children are watching,” she said on her Rumble platform. “We have your minor daughter’s TikTok account.”

Federal appeals court judges also are mulling whether to gag Mr Trump in his election interference case, aiming to balance First Amendment protections around political speech while addressing the wave of threats and harassment unleashed by Mr Trump and his supporters towards the prosecutors, judges, witnesses and prospective jurors involved in the cases against him.

A recent filing from US Department of Justice special counsel Jack Smith’s team described that dynamic as “part of a pattern, stretching back years, in which people publicly targeted” by Mr Trump are “subject to harassment, threats, and intimidation.”

Mr Trump “seeks to use this well-known dynamic to his advantage,” the filing added, and “it has continued unabated as this case and other unrelated cases involving the defendant have progressed.”

It’s a dynamic depicted across hundreds of court filings and sentencing memos for defendants convicted in connection with the January 6 attack on the US Capitol, with rioters using Mr Trump’s own words and relying on a false belief that the 2020 election was stolen from him to call for the deaths of elected officials, prepare their assault inside the halls of Congress, break into the building, fight off law enforcement, and force lawmakers to stop the certification of millions of Americans’ votes.

When Mr Smith’s team updated its gag order appeal to include reports of the scale of threats in the New York case, attorneys for the former president called them “irrelevant” to the case.

US District Judge Beryl Howell, who has presided over dozens of January 6 cases, warned that the stolen election narrative behind the attack presents an ongoing threat nearly three years later.

“My DC judicial colleagues and I regularly see the impact of big lies at the sentencing of hundreds” of people convicted in connection with the attack, she said in rare public remarks from Washington DC on 28 November.

“We are having a very surprising and downright troubling moment in this country when the very importance of facts is dismissed, or ignored,” she said. “That’s very risky business for all of us in our democracy. ... The facts matter.”

Thousands of Donald Trump’s supporters surround the US Capitol on 6 January, 2021.

But the former president’s rhetoric bombards a media ecosystem that is largely failing to keep up. “Trump’s authoritarian, deeply frightening behavior (at least for those who want to continue living in a democracy) has become so normalized that most people simply ignore it,” according to former US attorney Joyce Alene White Vance. “We live in a very dangerous moment.”

His recent violent statements have received relatively limited coverage across major TV news networks, according to analysis from Media Matters, which tracks right-wing media.

Major outlets devoted “dramatically” less coverage to Mr Trump’s “vermin” statement compared to coverage of the “basket of deplorables” comment from his 2016 rival Hillary Clinton, the group found. NBC, ABC and CBS provided 18 times more coverage of Ms Clinton’s comment than Mr Trump labeling his political opponents “vermin” on their combined morning, evening and Sunday morning political talk shows, according to one analysis.

Print reports in the five highest-circulating US newspapers that mentioned Ms Clinton’s statement outnumbered Mr Trump’s by 29 to one.

Media Matters also found that Mr Trump’s “poisoning the blood of our country” statement, his pledge to turn away migrants who don’t like “our religion”, his accusations that Jewish Americans are voting to “destroy” the US and Israel, and his claim that the terrorist group Hezbollah is “very smart” received fewer than two hours of TV news coverage total within the two weeks after he said them.

“When experts are sounding the alarm about the similarities between a likely US presidential nominee’s rhetoric and that of genocidaires, it warrants much more significant attention from journalists at leading news outlets,” wrote Media Matters senior fellow Matthew Gertz.

In a column that followed a widely criticised Univision interview with the former president, influential Spanish-language news anchor Jorge Ramos warned against normalising Mr Trump’s antidemocratic threats and giving him an open microphone “to broadcast his falsehoods and conspiracy theories.”

“We must question and fact-check everything he says and does,” Mr Ramos wrote.

“I am convinced that journalists have two great responsibilities. One is to report reality as it is, not as we wish it would be,” he wrote. “And the other is to demand an accounting from those in power and to challenge them.”

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