“Hillary wants to abolish, essentially abolish, the Second Amendment,” Donald Trump said.
He was standing onstage in Wilmington, North Carolina, but it could have been anyplace. This image of the Republican nominee—dressed in a dark suit and red tie, leaning on the wooden lectern stamped with his name, curling his lips into an “O,” and preparing to say something indecent—is familiar by now. Trump has appeared this way all across the United States for 14 months, where he has told lie after lie, delivered insult after insult, and brought shame upon shame to the country he seeks to lead.
“By the way,” he said, “and if she gets to pick—if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks, although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know.”
He said it like he hadn’t even considered the notion before it exited his mouth. He nearly shrugged. Maybe there is, I don’t know.
His campaign blamed the “dishonest media” for distorting his words to appear outrageous, but his words, as he uttered them, are right there for anyone who wants to listen. They’re right there for any American with a gun, any American with a violent streak, any American who believes justice can only be served through vigilantism, however extreme.
More than 13 million Republican primary voters nominated Trump because, they said, they wanted something different, a change from the status quo, someone who could operate outside the establishment. But that something different appears to come at a cost of total unpredictability and recklessness that could have real-world consequences.
Thirty-six Americans per day, on average, were killed by guns in 2015. Tens of thousands more were wounded. Schools were shot up, as were churches and street corners and clinics. This is a country that has lost presidents, lost leaders to guns. Where a congresswoman was shot in the head while meeting her constituents in the parking lot of a grocery store while a 9-year-old girl who’d come to see her was killed. Where 20 kindergartners were killed by a madman in the middle of the school day. Where the pews of a Baptist church, populated by men and women who’d come to worship, became a cemetery. Where 49 men and women, celebrating their freedom to love who they choose, were killed on a dance floor and hiding in bathroom stalls.
Should this be fodder for humor for the president of the United States?
Never before has a major party nominee suggested—even sarcastically—that a viable alternative to his opponent’s policies would be assassination. But then, never before has a major party nominee appeared so confused about exactly what it is he’s running for.
Long ago the political observers and Beltway pundits stopped wondering if Trump had finally gone too far to continue as a candidate. It wasn’t too far to insult immigrants, or prisoners of war, or women, or anyone who values freedom of religion, or freedom of speech, or freedom of the press, or Muslim-American soldiers. Trump lacks a sense of decency, for it requires a sense of self-awareness, and so he cannot recognize when a line has been crossed, cannot receive the memo when it’s time to apologize or to retreat into a darkened bedroom or the woods to do some reflecting.
But never has a line been so flippantly skipped across quite the way it was Tuesday afternoon.
It was just two months ago that Labour Party MP Jo Cox, a British member of Parliament, was fatally shot and stabbed as she met constituents by an assailant who, according to a bystander, shouted “Britain first!” a slogan of the anti-immigrant movement. And it was 24 years ago that Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a gunman who opposed his political agenda.
The four months between the July nominating conventions and the November general election are a job interview. Who do we want to make decisions for our families, or to represent us on the world stage, or to speak to us when, as a country, we suffer the unspeakable?
Before Trump was a politician, he became famous as a New York tabloid villain, and then a World Wrestling Entertainment personality, and finally a reality TV antihero. In all of these contexts, Trump’s way of expressing himself—in which everything is tongue and cheek and merely a suggestion, with the exception of “You’re fired!”—played well. His loose relationship with the truth and the sense that he was always, in some way, kidding, just contributed to the cartoon-like persona that turned him into a celebrity.
But bluffing doesn’t work on the national, or international, stage. Trump can no longer make a bet to shave his head and rest assured that in the end he’ll be running the razor over Vince McMahon’s follicles.
Trump doesn’t seem to understand that there is a difference between entertaining the country and leading it.
But maybe he thinks that’s funny, too.