Yesterday, after telling a crowd of his supporters in Wilmington, North Carolina that Hillary Clinton wanted to “abolish” the Second Amendment, Donald Trump warned that gun owners would face disaster if she won the presidency and got to appoint justices to the Supreme Court. Then he seemed to allude to the possibility of assassinating her. Here’s video:
If you can’t watch it because your work doesn’t allow videos that threaten candidates for president or the Secret Service is monitoring you or something, Trump said, “If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people—maybe there is. I don’t know.”
That’s by no means an explicit call for violence against his opponent. It does, however, allude to something “Second Amendment people” can do after the general election, when democratic avenues to prevent President Hillary Clinton from appointing judges have failed. These “Second Amendment people” are presumably gun owners, but that, too, is ambiguous. Maybe these unspecified people could do some unspecified thing to prevent a duly elected president from appointing judges to the Supreme Court—Trump doesn’t know. He’s just running for president, saying these things.
This morning, the editorial board of the New York Daily News wrote that Trump “must end his campaign for the White House in a reckoning with his own madness,” although he probably won’t. The Trump campaign, for its part, immediately denied that he was alluding to assassination in his remarks. The billionaire later told Sean Hannity of Fox News that he was referring to the political power of “Second Amendment people,” obviously. Quote:
This is a political movement. This is a strong powerful movement, the Second Amendment. Hillary wants to take your guns away. She wants to leave you unprotected in your home. And there can be no other interpretation. I mean, give me a break.
Here lies the frustration of trying to hold Trump accountable for anything he says. The Second Amendment is not a political movement; it’s an amendment to the Constitution. Trump pretty clearly seems to be referring to the NRA and other political organizations that oppose gun control, plus maybe the gun owners who support them, but he refers to that collection of people as “the Second Amendment”—something no one else does. Also, Clinton has articulated no plans to confiscate guns. Even as Trump insists he did not mean what people say he meant, he says a bunch of things that cannot possibly mean what he is saying.
I disagree with the claim that Trump’s remarks yesterday were an unambiguous call to political violence. The phrase “maybe there is [something]; I don’t know” is the essence of ambiguity. But Trump’s statements need not be explicit to be awful. A candidate for president should not say things that can be taken as encouragement to kill his opponent, even if that’s not the only interpretation of his remarks. The most robust reading seems to be that “or somebody could shoot her” popped into Trump’s head as he was speaking, and that’s what he referred to. But it need not be the only plausible reading to damn him.
It seems like Trump is in the habit of saying things and then deciding what he meant later. That’s not as bad as deliberately telling people to shoot his opponent, but for him to have done so accidentally is still a huge problem. He is one of two major-party candidates for president. What he means when he speaks is not as important as what people hear. Millions of people consider him their leader, for some reason, and he knows that. It is negligent for him to speak so loosely.
Saying words with defined meanings is still the primary communicative medium of our society. Despite recent advances in signification in the areas of thick ties and eerily symmetrical wives, the president will still run the country by speaking. What happens when the guy who maybe said to shoot Hillary Clinton and maybe said to vote against her says what to do about Iran? Why should the United States even consider electing as president a man who routinely tells us he didn’t mean what he just said, and we’re all crazy for thinking he did?