Trump’s violent rhetoric seems to be escalating – The Washington Post
Last week, the Republican Party’s leading presidential candidate proposed executing suspected shoplifters.
“Very simply, if you rob a store, you can fully expect to be shot as you are leaving that store,” former president Donald Trump said in Anaheim, Calif., outlining his vision for a second term at the convention of the state’s Republican Party. As the audience applauded, laughed and cheered, Trump added for emphasis, “Shot!”
Trump’s advocacy of extrajudicial killings was widely covered by newspapers and TV stations in California but generally ignored by the national press. No mainstream TV network carried his speech live or excerpted it later that night. CNN and MSNBC mentioned it during panel discussions over the next few days. The Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, NPR and PBS didn’t report it at all. The New York Times wrote about it four days later, playing the story on Page 14 of its print edition.
The Anaheim speech was part of a pattern of increasingly aggressive rhetoric by Trump — and a somewhat muted response by the news media to his repeated exhortations to violence.
During his speech in Anaheim, Trump also mocked Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) husband, who was gravely injured last year in a hammer attack by an assailant who reportedly believed the former president’s lies about a “stolen” 2020 election.
A few days before his appearance in California, Trump suggested on his Truth Social platform that the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark A. Milley, deserved “DEATH!” for reassuring Chinese officials that the United States had no plans to attack in the waning days of the Trump administration.
He has also hinted darkly about seeking retribution against judges, prosecutors, witnesses and officials involved in his multiple criminal and civil cases. In April, Trump said that an indictment by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin L. Bragg (D) would result in “potential death and destruction.” On Monday, facing a civil suit alleging business fraud, Trump urged people to “go after” Letitia James (D), the New York state attorney general who filed the suit.
The latest comment received only scattered attention.
Trump’s intimations of violence have received relatively less press coverage because they have become so routine, said Brian Klaas, a political scientist at University College London. Klaas says this reflects “the banality of crazy” — a tendency for the news media to ignore or downplay statements once considered shocking but which now, due to repetition, are taken more for granted.
“Bombarded by a constant stream of deranged authoritarian extremism from a man who might soon return to the presidency, [journalists] have lost all sense of scale and perspective,” Klaas wrote in the Atlantic last week, in a headline that felt both jarring and unsurprising: “Trump Floats the Idea of Executing Joint Chiefs Chairman Milley.” Klaas continued: “But neither the American press nor the public can afford to be lulled. The man who, as president, incited a violent attack on the U.S. Capitol in order to overturn an election is again openly fomenting political violence while explicitly endorsing authoritarian strategies should he return to power.”
In an interview with The Post, Klaas said Trump’s long history of shocking commentary has created “a dangerous double standard” in news coverage: Trump’s latest outrage draws less attention because it’s typical or expected, but minor flaws in other candidates and officials receive disproportionate attention because they’re novel.
Hence, Klaas said, the inordinate coverage last week of President Biden’s dog biting a Secret Service agent.
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Since leaving the White House more than 30 months ago, Trump has rarely been out of the news. But the media’s focus has been on his reelection campaign and his cascading legal troubles, including 91 felony indictments — not so much on the escalating and alarming nature of his comments.
Trump recently described NBC and MSNBC’s news coverage of him as “treason” and vowed to investigate its parent company, Comcast Corp., if he returns to office.
One network news manager pointed to a mundane reason that Trump’s Anaheim speech was ignored by his network and others: It came during a week in which the dominant story was the potential government shutdown. A correspondent for this same network — both spoke on the condition of anonymity because neither was authorized to speak publicly — also said some of the nonresponse was a result of “not wanting to amplify dangerous comments” by Trump.
Spokesmen for ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN and Fox News either declined to comment for this story or did not respond to requests for comment.
Atlantic magazine editor Jeffrey Goldberg, whose recent story about Milley prompted Trump’s ideation of Milley’s execution, said he was surprised by the mild reaction to Trump’s Truth Social post.
“I had expected every website and all the cable news shows to lead with a story about Trump demanding the execution of the highest military officer in the country,” Goldberg says. “If Barack Obama or George W. Bush had done so, I’m sure [the news media] would have been all over it.”
Goldberg adds: “It’s our job to provide people with accurate information about the people running for president. If one of the leading candidates says he’s in favor of shooting shoplifters, we have a responsibility to let readers and voters know about it.”
Charlie Sykes, a writer and founder of the political-analysis website the Bulwark, was also flummoxed by the torpid press reaction to Trump’s comments about shoplifters. “If the former president of the United States endorses extrajudicial killings of shoplifters, and we have to ask ‘Is that newsworthy?’ we need to reevaluate what we regard as important,” he said.
It suggests, Sykes said, that the news media still hasn’t figured out how to cover Trump, more than eight years after he announced he was running for president.
Since leaving the White House, Trump has openly floated a number of proposals that may exceed both federal authority or the Constitution itself. He has advocated using the military to fight street crime and deport undocumented people. He has also proposed forcibly removing homeless people from cities and sending them to encampments operated by the federal government.
And he has praised or defended authoritarian foreign leaders such as Russian President Vladimir Putin, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
News organizations need to take Trump’s statements both “literally and seriously,” says Susan Glasser, who has documented Trump’s presidency as an author and correspondent for the New Yorker.
“No question that when the leading Republican candidate talks about ‘DEATH’ to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and to shoplifters, and offers a daily array of other threatening, bizarre, and constitutionally questionable statements, journalists need to cover it,” she said by email, adding: “The last few years are littered with examples of unthinkable things that Trump actually pursued,” including attempting to overturn the results of the election in 2020, which culminated in the violent sacking of the U.S. Capitol.
Regardless of the news media’s response, Trump’s menacing rhetoric registers among his loyal supporters. His comment about shooting suspected thieves last week was interrupted by loud applause.
“Trump! Trump! Trump!” the crowd chanted.