On the presidential debate stage in September of 2020, Donald Trump was asked by Fox News anchor Chris Wallace to categorically denounce white supremacy. Trump at first deflected the question with a condemnation of left-wing Antifa and challenged Chris Wallace to name the so-called supremacists. When the debate moderator offered the Proud Boys as one example, Trump famously replied, “Proud Boys — stand back and stand by.”
As Sheera Frenkel and Annie Karni reported at the time in theNew York Times, “Within minutes, members of the group were posting in private social media channels, calling the president’s comments “historic.” In one channel dedicated to the Proud Boys on Telegram, a private messaging app, group members called the president’s comment a tacit endorsement of their violent tactics.”
While mainstream America may have bought the argument put forth by Jason Miller, a senior adviser to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign at the time that the candidate made it “very clear he wants them to knock it off,” those steeped in right-wing communications saw something very different—a clear call to arms when the time was right.
Fast forward to January 6, 2021. The time was apparently right as the Proud Boys became an organizational focal point during the insurrection at the nation’s Capitol. We could all witness in real time the results of this inflammatory rhetoric.
Fast forward again to the summer of 2022. Donald Trump, in a post on his Truth Social platform, castigated Republican leader Mitch McConnell for working against the Trump agenda by supporting some proposals that are also endorsed by Democrats. Trump posted, “He [McConnell] has a DEATH WISH [caps are Trump’s]. Must immediately seek help from his China-loving wife Coco Chow.”
Let’s leave aside for the moment the unconscionable racist attack on Elaine Chou—a former member of Donald Trump’s own cabinet. To use the phrase “death wish” in these volatile times is beyond irresponsible. It is no stretch of the imagination to picture an unbalanced Trump sycophant seeking to fulfill Trump’s thinly veiled death wish comment by physically attacking either McConnell or another of the former President’s so-called enemies.
In fact, as research has shown since the January 6 insurrection, threats have escalated exponentially leaving everyone from volunteer poll workers to members of Congress fearful for their safety. This reality has prompted Maine’s Senator Susan Collins to say, “I wouldn’t be surprised if a senator or House member were killed. What started with abusive phone calls is now translating into active threats of violence and real violence.”
With violent rhetoric increasing as the 2022 midterms approach, with the partisan divide in this country only deepening over time, with sixty percent of the American voters seeing election deniers on the ballot, Trump’s comment about his fellow Republican’s “death wish” can no longer be seen as a sloppy accident of language.
If we have learned nothing from the January 6 insurrection and the role that prior inflammatory language plays in animating extremist violence, the logical outcome of Donald Trump’s recent comment is almost too horrible to contemplate.