Former President Trump is kicking his taste for belligerent rhetoric up another notch — just as polls show public fear of political violence at historic highs.
Trump referred to President Biden as an “enemy of the state” during a rally in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., Saturday evening.
Trump’s language at the event, ostensibly in support of GOP candidates Mehmet Oz for Senate and Doug Mastriano for governor, had little in common with standard “get out the vote” campaign-trail rhetoric.
“We have to smash the grip of this vile and vindictive political class,” he told the crowd at one point.
If this shadowy group was not overcome, and power returned to “the people,” Trump added, “our republic and indeed our country will be destroyed.”
Trump’s turn toward ever more hard-line rhetoric comes as he faces unprecedented legal jeopardy, thanks to the FBI raid of his Mar-a-Lago estate on Aug. 8.
He is also confronted by the ongoing probe into the events around Jan. 6, 2021, by the Department of Justice (DOJ) and several other inquiries, including one looking at attempts to overturn the 2020 election results in Georgia.
All of these legal troubles are crowding in as Trump leans toward a 2024 presidential run.
Trump branded the FBI and DOJ “vicious monsters” during his Wilkes-Barre speech. The organizations, he claimed, were “controlled by radical leftist scoundrels, lawyers and the media who tell them what to do … and when to do it.”
At the conclusion of his speech — which lasted almost two hours, incorporating brief remarks from Oz — Trump branded his many enemies “tyrants.” These unnamed foes, he added, “do not stand a chance.”
Some will note that hot rhetoric from the former president is par the course. That’s true, to an extent.
Trump’s inflammatory talk has drawn stark criticism since the speech that launched his first presidential bid, in which he talked about Mexico sending “rapists” across the southern border.
The then-candidate would later suggest a judge in a Trump-related case could not be trusted to deliver justice because of his Mexican heritage; call for a “complete shutdown” of Muslim immigration; and, most infamously of all, declared there were “very fine people on both sides” amid racist violence in Charlottesville, Va.
In office, Trump was reported to have referred to African and Caribbean nations as “shithole countries.” In the wake of unrest after the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020, Trump reworked a slogan associated with a reactionary Miami police chief of the 1960s: “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” And, in one of his presidential debates with Biden just before the 2020 election, he instructed the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.”
What’s different now?
For one, the use of terms like “tyrants” seems to invite, if not demand, a quasi-revolutionary response from Trump’s most fervent supporters. The same goes for language about having to “smash the grip” of elites who are exerting sinister control over the citizenry.
The possibility of widespread political violence in the United States seems far more immediate now than it did even in 2015, when Trump began his first run for the presidency with his ride down the escalator of Trump Tower in New York.
A new poll from CBS News and YouGov, released Monday, makes for ominous reading.
Almost two-thirds of the population — 64 percent — believe that political violence will increase in the years ahead, the poll found.
The figure has risen rapidly even in the relatively brief time since the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection — an event in which almost 150 law enforcement personnel were injured, and for which Trump became the only president in American history to be twice impeached.
In January 2021, 51 percent of Americans believed more violence was likely, CBS and YouGov found. That had risen to 57 percent by December before hitting its current high.
The new poll offered little hope of the spiral being broken.
It found that 49 percent of Republicans considered Democrats “enemies,” not merely part of a political opposition. Among Democrats, the figure was almost identical — 47 percent considered Republicans enemies.
The deep enmity is already leading to action.
Figures as disparate as conservative Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and Congressional Progressive Caucus Chairwoman Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) have seen people arrested outside their homes, allegedly intent on threatening their lives.
Against this backdrop, Trump’s willingness to douse the flames with a bit more gasoline seems especially threatening.
“It’s outrageous and it’s dangerous,” said Heidi Beirich, the co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism.
Noting threats against FBI agents in the wake of the raid on Trump’s Florida estate, Beirich said that the former president’s “willingness to demonize seems to know no bounds.”
Trump’s fusillades against the FBI and DOJ complicate life for his fellow Republicans, accustomed to branding themselves as staunch supporters of law enforcement.
His remarks also, politically speaking, buttress Biden’s claims about an “extreme MAGA” strand of the current GOP — and, at least to some, justify the current president’s warnings about a rising tide of “semi-fascism.”
But Trump, as usual, shows no signs of lowering the temperature.
On Monday, he was insisting anew that the FBI and DOJ should “change the results of the 2020 presidential election.”
The DOJ and FBI, he added in another post, are “being pushed to do the wrong thing by many sinister and evil outside sources.”
He did not state what the appropriate remedy might be.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.