Let’s first dispense with the lie that Donald Trump’s appeal to Second Amendment supporters was merely that they should be sure to vote. If that was what he meant, that’s what he would have said.
What he did was to spew another of his can’t-prove-I-said-that declarations that any honest listener clearly understands: in this case that violence could be an acceptable resort if a President Hillary Clinton were to appoint judges whose views on the Second Amendment’s protection of the right to bear arms differed from the NRA’s.
“If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks,” Trump said at a rally in Wilmington, N.C., in which he falsely claimed that Clinton wants to strip Americans of gun rights. Then he continued: “Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know.”
It was textbook Trump. He says something that is crass or stupid or false or all of the above, but in a convoluted way that somehow provides him deniability. He’s wearing the emperor’s new clothes. Except for the true believers who are infatuated with the Republican nominee, the message he sends is clear.
It was startling, even given Trump’s previous shameful conduct. It’s bad enough to mock a person with physical disabilities or to demean the parents of a soldier killed in action or to insult a U.S. senator who had been a prisoner of war or to make insulting insinuations regarding a female Fox News personality. All are unacceptable by any decent person, let alone someone who holds himself out to be an appropriate choice for president of the United States.
But to raise the possibility of gun violence as a legitimate response to the loss of an election crosses a line from which there is no coming back. We would call on Trump to apologize and retract the comment, but for two problems: No one would believe him and he won’t do it, anyway. He denies and doubles down.
That leaves it to his supporters to respond. In a normal election, they would take Trump’s most recent comments as their cue to exit. That includes Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, all of whom have criticized Trump in the past but who cannot bring themselves to flatly reject him.
And it emphatically includes Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence, who was the first member of the House to endorse Trump. Collins has tied himself in knots defending the indefensible about Trump. Perhaps he thinks no one notices.
The best that can be said about these officeholders is that they are trying to protect down-ballot candidates. It’s become an insufficient excuse, but if they still can’t repudiate their nominee – and some Republicans have – they at least need to reject Trump’s call to violence, firmly, clearly and without any equivocations of the sort painfully offered by Rudy Giuliani, a former federal prosecutor who knows better.
Trump is campaigning in a way that threatens to breed distrust in the result and perhaps even violence. That, alone, violates the American tradition of helping to heal the country after an election loss. That’s what Al Gore did after the controversial result of the 2000 election, as did John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012. It’s an essential component of any democracy, but Trump is poisoning even that.