At an Aug. 9 rally in Wilmington, N.C., Donald Trump warned his supporters of the inherent danger in allowing Hillary Clinton to appoint a justice to the Supreme Court: “Hillary wants to abolish, essentially abolish, the Second Amendment… If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is. I don’t know.”

These remarks were widely interpreted by Trump’s critics as a call for violence against Hillary Clinton. While Trump and his campaign roundly denounced this interpretation — they wrote it off as another example of biased media coverage and explained it as a call to mobilize Second Amendment advocates — many saw this denunciation as just another attempt to walk back his intentional but inappropriate comments, one of many similar walk backs this election cycle.

Here’s why Trump’s comments were so easily construed as an attack on Clinton and so difficult to dismiss as a misunderstanding. First, Trump’s comments are consistent with a trajectory of escalating calls for violence against Clinton among members of the GOP. Cries of “Hang that Bitch” have become commonplace at Trump rallies. But these calls aren’t limited to attendees at rallies; they also come from officeholders and high-ranking campaign advisers. A few weeks ago Rep. Michael Folk, a member of West Virginia’s House of Delegates, tweeted: “@HillaryClinton You should be tried for treason, murder, and crimes against the US Constitution… then hung on the Mall in Washington, DC.” One of Trump’s own advisors, Al Baldasaro, called Clinton a “piece of garbage” and suggested that “Hillary Clinton should be put in the firing line and shot for treason.” Add to this New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s bizarre convention speech and Ben Carson’s attempts to link Clinton to Lucifer, and this rhetoric seems more reminiscent of the Salem Witch Trials than a modern Presidential contest. In each of these cases, Trump has offered either tacit acceptance of this kind of dehumanizing rhetoric or outright praise.

Second, Trump’s comments are hard to dismiss in light of the nation’s ongoing struggle with gun violence and domestic terrorism. The Gun Violence Archive reports 239 mass shootings in the first 227 days of 2016, and police shootings are on the rise. Some have called Trump’s comments a dog whistle to violence against Clinton — a coded or ambiguous statement that will fly under the radar for many voters but register as a literal call to arms among a small, targeted group inclined to see gun violence as a legitimate form of political expression. There are clear parallels between this kind of rhetoric and the murder of British MP Jo Cox by a white nationalist earlier this summer. This incident warns of the connection between extremist rhetoric and political violence.

Violence is not a new feature of presidential campaigns, or political campaigns more generally, but it has typically been engaged through metaphor. For example, the “political campaign as war” metaphor is ubiquitous. The term campaign itself has its origins in military strategy, and references to the candidates’ war rooms, discussion of candidates air wars versus ground games, and an emphasis on battleground states all speak to how the war concept permeates public discussion of the modern political campaign. Jackson Katz, author of Man Enough? Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and the Politics of Presidential Masculinity, notes that war metaphors are frequently intermingled with sports metaphors in media coverage of campaigns. Sports metaphors tend to relate political contests to violent sports; for instance, presidential debates are often cast as boxing matches. Candidates are praised for their pugilistic stances and heavyweight status. See also Meredith Conroy’s “Feminize your Opponent” in TBR.

It’s important to recognize that these metaphors offer a highly stylized form of violence. Historically, war imagery in campaigns has spoken to the concept of an orderly, sportsmanlike “gentleman’s war” and not guerilla warfare. Similarly, the boxing match metaphor implies that there are rules to the contest and that participants are engaged in a well-structured competition between (relatively) similarly matched opponents. Implicit in these metaphors is also the idea that there are penalties for breaking the rules or for introducing outside factors; a match can be declared no contest, war crimes can be punished by the international community. All of this carries forward, creating norms or expectations surrounding the contest, resulting in a kind of contained and stylized violence that is socially sanctioned. Katz notes that these kinds of metaphors are so commonplace that they barely register; they are “nearly invisible, even to cultural critics, precisely because they are such a part of our daily speech that they ‘fly under the radar’ of cultural consciousness (p. 51).”

While Trump’s comments may still “fly under the radar” for some voters, they represent a disturbing departure from these more sterile manifestations of violence in American political campaigns. Trump’s rhetoric suggests there are no rules; it marks a shift from gentleman’s war to domestic terrorism. By promoting “extra-mural” violence against his opponent, Trump abandons the relative safety of violent metaphor and enters more dangerous territory. Trump has been praised by his supporters for his literal speech — telling it like it is, no matter how unpopular the sentiment might be. His call on Second Amendment supporters, though seemingly vague, speaks much more literally to the possibility of political violence as a legitimate political strategy — either in the form of political assassination or armed insurrection. It speaks to the anti-government, pro-militia mindset that attracted many supporters to Trump in the first place.

Trump isn’t the first to make this shift, though he’s perhaps the most high-profile member of the GOP to do so and his comments have been greatly amplified in the saturated media environment surrounding the election. Running against incumbent Democratic Senator Harry Reid in 2010, challenger Sharron Angle consistently appealed to Second Amendment voters, with remarks like “I’m hoping we’re not getting to Second Amendment remedies. I hope the vote will be the cure for the Harry Reid problems.” At a 2012 NRA event, now-Senator Joni Ernst (IA) remarked, “I do believe in the right to carry, and I believe in the right to defend myself and my family — whether it’s from an intruder, or whether it’s from the government, should they decide that my rights are no longer important.” Rhetoric invoking “Second Amendment solutions” seems to be offered as a concrete Plan B for electoral politics: if you can’t get the votes, you can still get your guns.

The gender dynamics of the presidential contest also bear on how Trump’s comments are interpreted. Women in politics make highly visible targets for violence, as the assassination of Jo Cox and attempted assassination of Gabrielle Giffords suggest. It’s also evident from the growing threats of violence and death facing female political bloggers and their families. Threats of violence against women in the public sphere are intended to intimidate, silence and punish women who seek political power and influence. Worse yet, the dehumanizing rhetoric that accompanies these threats — e.g., Baldasaro’s comment that Clinton is a “piece of garbage” — works like a kind of accelerant to violence. Philip Zimbardo, the researcher behind the Stanford Prison Experiment and author of The Lucifer Effect, notes that dehumanization is a key psychological mechanism in promoting prejudice, aggression and violence.

Zimbardo writes that “Dehumanization occurs whenever some human beings consider other human beings to be excluded from the moral order” and, noting the role that political rhetoric plays in this process, argues that “dehumanizing agents suspend the morality that might typically govern reasoned actions toward their fellows (307).” Zibmardo’s experimental research reveals that simply applying dehumanizing labels toward individuals and groups of people — e.g., labeling them “an animalistic, rotten bunch” — promotes more aggressive and punitive behavior. His more applied research, which includes interviews with perpetrators of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, makes a similar point — that dehumanizing rhetoric fuels a hostile imagination toward one’s enemy, lowering the moral and cultural barriers that normally mitigate abuse and aggression toward others and facilitating “destructive and abusive actions.”

Here’s a powerful set of images to consider. In the image on the left, L.A. Times political cartoonist David Horsey suggests there is a target on Clinton’s head. The image on the right is a picture of a mug shot used for target practice by members of the North Miami Police Department. While the image on the left is stylized and could represent either a real or a figurative target, there’s less ambiguity in the image on the right. Black men are not just figurative targets of police violence. This pair of images is disorienting in the same way Trump’s Second Amendment comments are disorienting. There’s a dangerous possibility in the ambiguity. The metaphor breaks down when we consider the intimacy between the practice of violence and its reality. Taken together, the two images are discomforting because they point to the inherent danger in the GOP rhetoric surrounding Hillary Clinton and “Second Amendment solutions” more generally.

Clinton and African American man target imagesImage composite by author.

In this political climate, Trump’s comments are more than just poor sportsmanship or commonplace campaign metaphor; they are unethical. They offer an invitation to violence and a dog-whistle to homegrown terrorism. They are further indicative of misogyny, allegations of which have haunted Trump throughout his campaign. It’s important to recognize the real work that this kind of dehumanizing and violent rhetoric is doing and to pay attention to where metaphors grate uncomfortably against reality. Calls for Second Amendment solutions are an affront to our democratic principles and have the power to undermine our democratic institutions. Because of this, Trump’s aggressive rhetoric demands continued challenge and scrutiny, regardless of whether the campaign seeks to explain it away as jokes or sarcasm.

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.

  • Brian Mumford

    This is a rediculous assertion on so many levels. Moreover, electing Hillary should not even be an option. She should be facing charges and serving a prison sentence. Anyone who votes for Clinton is devoid of morals and violates our basic tenets of justice in my opinion, and I am a former locally elected Democrat saying this. I am independent now because it is clear both parties have lost their way. That said, IF I cast a vote, it will be for Trump because illegal immigration has to be dealt with, and he clearly is the only one willing to do that.

    • cellobrian

      First off, you might reconsider your spelling of the word “ridiculous,” especially when commenting on such a well-written and well-researched editorial. Secondly, banning Muslims, building a wall, and “figuring this out” are not really concrete ways of dealing with illegal immigration. Think what you will about Hillary Clinton, but please keep your thinly-veiled, white guy misogyny to yourself.
      Finally, your comment of “IF you vote” is further evidence of your unspoken entitlement. Have you no respect for our democratic process? You are commenting on a piece written by a woman with a PhD, who has the right to vote. You don’t even have to go back 100 years in our country’s history to find a time when one of those things was unlikely, and the other was simply illegal. It’s time to check your privilege and do some reading about the real issues affecting this country.

      • Brian Mumford

        I love it when people like you start off with an ad hominem attack. I type 70 wpm and make mistakes. I am not publishing an article here.

        So let’s talk about content. What makes you think I am a misogynistic? What did I say to lead you to that conclusion? If I didn’t say anything other than I don’t support this particular woman, who is being prejudice?

        Moreover, how is building a wall and temporarily banning muslims “not really concrete?” Surely that is more effective than what we’re doing now. What’s Hillary’s solution? How is it working out for Sweden? Germany?

        Now let’s look at something else you said: “Finally, your comment of ‘IF you vote’ is further evidence of your unspoken entitlement.” Unspoken entitlement? What exactly do you mean by that? Are you referring to my right to protest silently by not allowing myself to be forced to make a bad choice if that’s what I ultimately deem to be the case?

        What does a PhD have to do with it? I don’t have a PhD, but I know a lot more about politics and public administration than many if not most. I studied both subjects in college and grad school. I am also a former board of elections director who lost his job because I wouldn’t cave to coercion and I couldn’t lulled into doing something wrong when the party tried courting me when a threat didn’t work.

        This white guy also fought to get equal pay for a black man who I once worked with two states away when he took me up on my offer to move out and work for me. I did the same for the white woman who did the same thing. I’ve risked my neck for women and minorities, so please dispense with the white guy bs. I’d really like my questions answered, especially about the misogyny. It sounds to me you reacted with your feelings in lieu of rationally approaching my statements. Maybe you should be the one not voting.

        • cellobrian

          Here goes:
          1.) I guarantee you that if the democratic nominee were a man, with the same qualifications as Hillary, you and the many other dudes out there who accuse her of all manner of imaginary nonsense, would have no problem with said candidate.

          2.) Building a wall and banning Muslims are not policy stances. They are knee-jerk reactions to virtually non-existent problems. More people are killed annually in this country by police officers and deranged white guys with guns than by these Muslim terrorists the GOP folk seem so terrified of.

          3.) I believe that we have a moral and societal obligation to cast votes in every election, local and national. Too many people have been denied this right (black people and women) throughout our nation’s history for me to treat it with such a cavalier attitude. I want EVERYONE who is registered to cast a vote.

          4.) The PhD status of the author, along with her dissertation/research areas of study, along with her status as a tenured professor of political science make her opinions and ideas on this topic significantly more valid than yours. You took some classes in university? Congratulations. I also think that you wouldn’t have outright dismissed her work the way that you did if the author was a man.

          Finally, I accused you of being a misogynist because your attitude and tone are both incredibly similar to every other white male misogynist online troll I have ever encountered.

          • Brian Mumford

            I’m not shouting, but I am going to type in caps to differentiate my words from yours.

            Here goes:

            1.) I guarantee you that if the democratic nominee were a man, with the same qualifications as Hillary, you and the many other dudes out there who accuse her of all manner of imaginary nonsense, would have no problem with said candidate.

            BEING A MAN OR A WOMAN HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH IT. DO YOU REALLY THINK IT’S A GOOD IDEA TO TELL SOMEONE WHAT THEY THINK WHEN YOU DON’T EVEN KNOW THEM? JUST BECAUSE I DON’T LIKE HILLARY, I AM MISOGYNISTIC? MOREOVER, IT IS NOT IMAGINARY NONSENSE. REMEMBER, I USED TO BE A DEMOCRAT FOR A LIVING, SO I WASN’T PART OF THE CONSERVATIVE SPIN MACHINE. WAS THE “SNIPER FIRE” LIE SHARYL ATTKISSON BROKE A LIE? AFTER ALL, SHE’S A FIVE TIME EMMY AWARD WINNING REPORTER WHO WAS TRAVELING WITH HER AND SHE PROVIDED VIDEO SHOWING THAT HILLARY WAS SMILING, HUGGING, AND SHAKING HANDS WITH THE VERY TARMAC? WAS THE FBI IMAGINING NONSENSE WHEN THEY CONCLUDED SHE ACTUALLY DID HAVE CONFIDENTIAL AND TOP SECRET EMAIL THAT SHE BOTH RECEIVED AND SENT ON HER PRIVATE SERVER AFTER SHE EMPHATICALLY DENIED IT? I THINK YOU’RE SUFFERING FROM CONFIRMATION BIAS.

            2.) Building a wall and banning Muslims are not policy stances. They are knee-jerk reactions to virtually non-existent problems. More people are killed annually in this country by police officers and deranged white guys with guns than by these Muslim terrorists the GOP folk seem so terrified of.

            REALLY? THEY ARE NOT POLICY STANCES? THAT MAKES NO SENSE, ESPECIALLY SINCE TRUMP HAS BEEN ADVOCATING THIS FOR YEARS, SO IT’S HARDLY A KNEE-JERK REACTIONS.

            3.) I believe that we have a moral and societal obligation to cast votes in every election, local and national. Too many people have been denied this right (black people and women) throughout our nation’s history for me to treat it with such a cavalier attitude. I want EVERYONE who is registered to cast a vote.

            I HAVE VOTED IN VIRTUALLY EVERY GENERAL, PRIMARY, AND SPECIAL ELECTION I WAS ELIGIBLE TO PARTICIPATE IN WHERE I LIVE; AND LIKE I SAID, I USED TO DO THIS FOR A LIVING, AND I USED TO THINK AS YOU DO, BUT ONCE YOU FIGURE OUT HOW THE SYSTEM REALLY WORKS, NOT VOTING IS A FORM OF PROTEST. THAT SAID, WHEN I HAVE DECIDED NOT TO VOTE IN A CONTEST, I VOTE A BALLOT AND LEAVE THAT PARTICULAR RACE BLANK. THIS TWO PARTY SYSTEM IS A RESULT OF DIVIDE’ ET IMPERA POLITICS. IN MY OPINION, THEY DIVVY UP THE CORRECT SIDE OF ISSUES BETWEEN THE TWO PARTIES TO DIVIDE US AND KEEP US DISTRACTED FIGHTING ONE ANOTHER. I WASN’T EVEN GOING TO CONSIDER VOTING IN THIS ELECTION EXCEPT THAT TRUMP MAY BE A TRULY INDEPENDENT CANDIDATE WHO HAPPENS TO BE SERIOUS ABOUT ADDRESSING THE ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION ISSUE. I CAN’T EXPLAIN ALL THE SOCIOECONOMIC AND SOCIOCULTURAL ASPECTS THAT FACTOR INTO MY POLITICS WITHOUT WRITING AN EXTENSIVE POST, AND I AM SURE YOU DON’T WANT ME TO WASTE YOUR TIME DOING THAT, BUT TRUST ME, I HAVE THIS VERY WELL THOUGHT OUT AND I HAVE FORGOTTEN MORE ABOUT POLITICS THAN MOST PEOPLE KNOW.

            4.) The PhD status of the author, along with her dissertation/research areas of study, along with her status as a tenured professor of political science make her opinions and ideas on this topic significantly more valid than yours. You took some classes in university? Congratulations. I also think that you wouldn’t have outright dismissed her work the way that you did if the author was a man.

            I MAJORED IN POLITICAL SCIENCE, AND I MAJORED IN PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION IN GRAD SCHOOL. I WAS LOCALLY ELECTED TO THE DEMOCRATIC CENTRAL COMMITTEE, AND I MANAGED AN OFFICE FULL OF DEMOCRATS AND REPUBLICANS FOR YEARS. SORRY, I MAY NOT HAVE THE LETTERS PHD BY MY NAME, BUT I ASSURE YOU I AM AS GOOD AS A PHD. I ALSO HAVE A DECADE MANAGING AND DIRECTING FOR A FORTUNE 500 COMPANY. YOU CAN FIND PHD’S ON ALL SIDES OF ISSUES, SO THAT DOES NOT MEAN A THING. THE LONDON SCHOOL OR ECONOMICS RANKED THE POLITICAL SCIENCE DEPARTMENT I GRADUATED FROM 4TH IN THE WORLD BEATING OUT THE LIKES OF YALE, OXFORD, BERKELEY, CAMBRIDGE ETC… AND YOU KNOW WHAT? IT TAUGHT ME EVERYTHING BUT WHAT I NEEDED TO KNOW ABOUT OUR POLITICAL SYSTEM.

            HERE’S A LITMUS TEST FOR YOU. ASK THE PHDS YOU WORSHIP I THEY BELIEVE JUDICIAL REVIEW IS CONSTITUTIONAL. IF THEY ANSWER YES, THEN THE PHD HASN’T HELPED. THE CONGRESS COULD END CITIZENS UNITED TOMORROW JUST BY IGNORING THE WRIT OF MANDAMUS CHIEF JUSTICE JOHN MARSHALL ISSUED CONGRESS WHEN IT STRUCK DOWN SECT. 13 OF THE JUDICIARY ACT OF 1789 THAT EXPANDED ITS ORIGINAL JURISDICTION IN MARBURY V. MADISON. THE COURT GRANTED ITSELF THE POWER OF JUDICIAL REVIEW BY CONTRADICTING ITS OWN RULING IN MARBURY. IN OTHER WORDS, IT STRUCK DOWN CONGRESS’ LAW BECAUSE MARSHALL SAID THAT IT FUNDAMENTALLY CHANGED THE CONSTITUTION WHICH REQUIRED A CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT (RATIFIED BY 3/4THS OF THE STATES) RATHER THAN A SIMPLE MAJORITY OF THE VOTE. BY DOING SO, THEY FUNDAMENTALLY CHANGED THE CONSTITUTION IN A MUCH LARGER WAY GIVING ITSELF A JUDICIAL VETO BY A SIMPLE MAJORITY OF AN INCOMPLETE COURT AS TWO JUSTICES RECUSED THEMSELVES. YET, THE SCOTUS, CONGRESS, THE PRESIDENT AND ACADEMICS OVERWHELMINGLY SUPPORT JUDICIAL REVIEW AND THEY OFTEN CITE FEDERALIST NO. 78 WHICH IS A JOKE. HAMILTON ALLEGEDLY WROTE IT, ALTHOUGH THEY THEY CAN’T PROVE IT (AND SOME OF THE FEDERALIST PAPERS ARE DESIGNATED AS SUCH NOT KNOWING IF HAMILTON, JAY OR MADISON ACTUALLY WROTE THEM). BUT LET’S GIVE THEM THE BENEFIT OF THE DOUBT THAT PUBLIUS WAS HAMILTON, WHY ARE WE LISTENING TO HIM? THE AUTHOR OF THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE (JEFFERSON), THE PRIMARY ARCHITECT OF THE CONSTITUTION (MADISON), AND THE PRESIDENT WHO SAVED THE UNION (LINCOLN) ALL AGREE WITH ME ON THIS, AND THERE IS PROOF JUDICIAL REVIEW WAS INTENTIONALLY LEFT OUT OF THE CONSTITUTION, BUT ACADEMICS WHO QUESTION IT ARE RARE. INSTEAD, HILLARY, BERNIE, AND STEIN ALL ADVOCATE EITHER APPOINTING A LIBERAL SCOTUS JUDGE OR A CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT TO REVERSE CITIZENS UNITED WHEN ALL THEY HAVE TO DO IS MAKE THE CASE THAT THE RULING WAS ILLEGAL TO BEGIN WITH. IT WAS. 100%! SO IF YOU THINK HAVE A PHD OR A JD SOMEHOW MAKES SOMEONE AN AUTHORITY OVER ME, GO FIND ONE TO ARGUE WITH ME. A SCOTUS JUSTICE COULD NOT DEFEAT MY ARGUMENT. I ONCE HAD A REALLY GOOD PHILOSOPHY PROFESSOR IN COLLEGE. HE ACTUALLY WROTE A BOOK ON THE SUBJECT. I DIDN’T BUY SOMETHING HE WAS TELLING CLASS, AND I HAD PAID CLOSE ATTENTION TO THE PRIMARY SOURCE MATERIAL, AND I CHALLENGED HIM. HE ENDED UP GRABBING HIS THINGS AND MUMBLING THAT MAYBE HE WASN’T CUT OUT FOR THIS AND HE LEFT CLASS. I FELT BAD, BUT THE OTHER STUDENTS ASSURED ME I DID NOTHING WRONG; AND IT WASN’T THAT HE WAS A BAD TEACHER, I LEARNED A LOT FROM HIM, BUT A PHD BY YOUR NAME DOES NOT MAKE SOMEONE AN AUTHORITY. IF YOU WANT TO TEST MY OPINION, GO ASK A PHD TO ARGUE JUDICIAL REVIEW WITH ME, OR IF ANY ARE READING THIS WHO DISAGREE, FEEL FREE TO JUMP IN, AND LET’S SEE HOW THAT WORKS OUT. THE FUNNY THING IS THAT THIS WASN’T SOMETHING I EVEN PUT A LOT OF TIME IN. DAY AFTER DAY THE PARTIES LIE TO US AND YOU GUYS ALL BUY IT.

            Finally, I accused you of being a misogynist because your attitude and tone are both incredibly similar to every other white male misogynist online troll I have ever encountered.

            IN WHAT WAY? SPECIFICALLY, WHAT IN MY WRITING PORTRAYED AN ATTITUDE AND TONE THAT IS INCREDIBLY SIMILAR TO EVERY OTHER WHITE MALE MISOGYNIST ONLINE TROLL? I’D REALLY LIKE TO KNOW HOW THAT WORKS BECAUSE THAT WOULD BE A MAJOR BREAKTHROUGH (CRACKING THE CODE ON PREDICTING SOMEONE’S POLITICS).

            I HAVE SOME ADVICE. DON’T GENERALIZE INDIVIDUALS. DON’T REDUCE THEM TO A STEREOTYPE. I NOTICE THAT YOU DIDN’T ACKNOWLEDGE THAT I HAVE STOOD UP FOR WOMEN TO GET THEM EQUAL PAY. THAT IS NOT THE ACT OF A MISOGYNIST. IS IT? I DID IT TWICE TOO. ONE OF THE TIMES I ACTUALLY THREATENED TO QUIT IF THEY DIDN’T ADJUST HER PAY? HAVE YOU EVER STOOD UP FOR A WOMAN LIKE THAT? I WOULD PREFER IT IF YOU REFRAINED FROM PREACHING TO ME; AND INSTEAD OF INSULTING ME, YOU SHOULD BE TAKING NOTES.

          • Brian Mumford

            BY THE WAY, SINCE YOU ATTACKED MY LITTLE SPELLING ERROR, WHY ARE YOU TYPING “1.)” PICK A PERIOD OR PARENTHESES, BUT NOT BOTH.

    • Villabolo

      It all boils down to this: Who would you trust with the nuclear codes?

      • Brian Mumford

        Not Hillary.