Trump Isn’t Merely Unhinged

With apologies to a certain newspaper’s slogan, many of Donald Trump’s most dangerous statements hide in the plain light of day.

The problem is not that they don’t get reported on—they do—but even so, they are easy to tune out, perhaps because he’s been saying outlandish things for so long that people simply can’t bring themselves to parse the new ones; or perhaps because they’ve become accustomed, or at least numb, to his utterances; or perhaps because they don’t want to let him occupy their headspace; or perhaps because he got kicked off Twitter (now X) and they had no interest in joining Truth Social. Or maybe it’s because the more sinister material gets mixed up with his strange elocutions (“We’re gonna have a great country—it’s gonna be called the United States of America”), contrarian hot takes (“You know, Hezbollah is very smart. They’re all very smart”), and gibberish (“All of these indictments that you see—I was never indicted. Practically never heard the word. It wasn’t a word that registered”).

[From the November 2023 issue: How we got ‘democracy dies in darkness’]

Whatever the case may be, Trump has continued to make plainly dangerous and stunning remarks. Notwithstanding his rival Governor Ron DeSantis’s recent claim that Trump has “lost the zip on his fastball,” the former president continues to produce substantive ideas—which is not to say they are wise or prudent, but they are certainly more than gibberish. In fact, much of what Trump is discussing is un-American, not merely in the sense of being antithetical to some imagined national set of mores, but in that his ideas contravene basic principles of the Constitution or other bedrock bases of American government.

They are the sorts of ideas that would have been shocking to hear from any mainstream politician just a decade ago. And yet, today, Trump—arguably the single most influential figure in the United States—says these things, and they hardly register. Consider the following examples, all from just the past few months:

1. Promised to destroy the federal government as we know it.

Trump has been promising in speeches to “demolish the deep state.” What he means by that is to end the federal government as it exists today, eliminating the civil-service jobs that have been in place since the late 19th century. This is clear because former Trump aides who are designing the effort, part of a sort of shadow government housed at conservative think tanks, are open about what they have in mind, as my colleague Russell Berman reports: a federal workforce that can be fired by the president at will and must follow his personal whims. That would be a major departure from the current system, where employees are permanent professionals who work for administrations of both parties and are meant to focus on effective implementation, rather than political hacks chosen for their loyalty.

2. Argued that a presidential candidate should be immune from prosecution.

While attempting to dodge the 91 criminal indictments against him, Trump argued in a July 10 court filing that he shouldn’t have to deal with the hassle of a federal trial, because running for president “requires a tremendous amount of time and energy.” This goes directly against the idea that no U.S. citizen is above the law.

3. Insulted and attempted to intimidate judges, prosecutors, witnesses, and others.

Trump hasn’t just made arguments in court related to the criminal and civil cases against him; he has also produced a steady stream of invective directed at anyone involved in the cases, to the point of seeking to intimidate witnesses, court staff, and even prosecutors’ family members. Subjects of his threats include the federal judge Tanya Chutkan; New York Justice Arthur Engoron; Engoron’s law clerk (for which Trump was slapped with a gag order); New York Attorney General Letitia James, including his inscrutable and maybe racist nickname for her; Mark Meadows, the former White House chief of staff and a possible witness; Special Counsel Jack Smith; and even Smith’s wife, a documentary filmmaker. Smith’s team successfully convinced Chutkan that some of these infractions could threaten the likelihood of a fair trial, and she ordered Trump to stop, though she permitted him to attack her and President Joe Biden, among others, and to call his prosecution political. Trump appealed the order but lost, then promptly attacked another potential witness, former Attorney General Bill Barr. (An appeals court has now paused the order once more.)

4. Continued to claim that the election was stolen.

Trump continues to insist, despite presenting no real evidence and losing every relevant court case, that he actually won the 2020 election. “I don’t consider us to have much of a democracy right now,” he said on Meet the Press on September 17. Perversely, Trump now has some incentive to keep lying about the election rather than acknowledge that he lost: Part of Smith’s case is premised on the idea that Trump knew he had been defeated. A functioning democracy depends on the consent of the losers; throughout U.S. history, losers of elections have sometimes grumbled fiercely and other times taken losses gracefully, but none has ever tried to stay in office and then continued to claim he was the rightful winner in the manner Trump has.

[Read: Democracy depends on the consent of losers]

5. Excused the January 6 riot.

On Meet the Press and elsewhere, Trump has continued to excuse the riot on January 6, 2021, and to argue that people charged in the riots are political prisoners. He told the Meet the Press moderator, Kristen Welker, that he might pardon people convicted of federal crimes for their involvement in the assault on the seat of U.S. government: “Well, I’m going to look at them, and I certainly might if I think it’s appropriate. No, it’s a very, very sad thing. And it’s—they’re dividing the country so badly, and it’s very dangerous.” He has since referred to these people as “hostages,” a description that makes sense only if you find the very idea of policing the insurrection illegitimate.

6. Entertained pardoning himself.

Trump also continues to flirt with the idea of granting himself a pardon, typically saying he doesn’t see any need for it but refusing to rule it out. Most mainstream scholars say a self-pardon is probably not constitutional and certainly not something the framers intended.

7. Menaced American Jews for not voting for him.

During Rosh Hashanah, on September 17, Trump shared a meme that read, “Just a reminder for liberal Jews who voted to destroy America & Israel because you believed false narratives! Let’s hope you learned from your mistake & make better choices going forward!” As my colleague Yair Rosenberg wrote, Trump has often made such offensive remarks about the loyalties—perceived or desired—of American Jews, but this was “particularly ugly in the way it deliberately singled out a specific constituency during that constituency’s holiest season.”

8. Suggested executing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley.

Apparently outraged by the Atlantic editor in chief Jeffrey Goldberg’s profile of General Mark Milley, whom Trump appointed chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Trump on September 22 accused Milley of treason and suggested that he deserved the death penalty. “This guy turned out to be a Woke train wreck who, if the Fake News reporting is correct, was actually dealing with China to give them a heads up on the thinking of the President of the United States. This is an act so egregious that, in times gone by, the punishment would have been DEATH!” Trump wrote. Trump’s loose and sloppy treason accusations have always undermined the Constitution, and many past comments like this have precipitated threats and even attacks from Trump supporters.

9. Accused NBC of treason and threatened to pull it off the air.

Trump has never had any interest in upholding the First Amendment, but his remarks on September 24 were unusually sharp. Trump wrote that NBC News, and especially MSNBC, “should be investigated for its ‘Country Threatening Treason.’ Why should NBC, or any other of the corrupt & dishonest media companies, be entitled to use the very valuable Airwaves of the USA, FREE? They are a true threat to Democracy and are, in fact, THE ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE!” This sort of demonization of the press is dangerous per se—as demonstrated by attacks on journalists—as are Trump’s casual accusations of treason, but this one carries a clear threat to try to use the power of the federal government to punish a news organization for reporting he doesn’t like. This contradicts even the most limited, basic understanding of the importance of a free press, as protected by the First Amendment. (Set aside the dissonance of saying this shortly after granting an in-depth interview to NBC News!)

10. Promised to lock up political opponents.

During a September 28 interview, Trump said he would imprison his political adversaries if he is reelected. Glenn Beck asked Trump, “You said in 2016, you know, ‘Lock her up.’ And then when you became president, you said, ‘We don’t do that in America.’ That’s just not the right thing to do. That’s what they’re doing. Do you regret not locking her up? And if you’re president again, will you lock people up?” Trump replied, “Uh, the answer is you have no choice because they’re doing it to us.” Because Trump believes, or claims to believe, that he is being prosecuted for purely political reasons, he’s vowing to go after his political opponents for the crime of being his political opponents—a violation of both free-speech and due-process protections.

11. Recommended extrajudicial executions.

At a rally two days later, on September 30, Trump once again advocated going around the criminal-justice system to administer vigilante punishment. “Very simply, if you rob a store, you can fully expect to be shot as you are leaving that store,” he told the California Republican Party, adding: “Shot!” (The Associated Press, either too nonchalantly or with dry understatement, described it this way: “Trump animates California Republicans with calls to shoot people who rob stores.”) This, too, violates the basic concept of due process for accused criminals.

12. Called for a judge overseeing his case to be prosecuted.

Among Trump’s many fulminations against Justice Engoron, Trump told reporters on October 2 not only that the judge should be removed from the bench, but that he should face prosecution—for no apparent crime other than being assigned to Trump’s case and ruling against Trump. “This is a judge that should be disbarred,” he said. “This is a judge that should be out of office. This is a judge that some people say could be charged criminally for what he’s doing. He’s interfering with an election.”

[David A. Graham: Donald Trump is any defense attorney’s nightmare]

13. Told voters not to bother voting.

During an October 23 rally in New Hampshire, Trump told attendees, “You don’t have to vote, don’t worry about voting. The voting, we got plenty of votes, you gotta watch.” As is sometimes the case with Trump, it’s hard to tell whether this is intended as a joke; or a statement that if all votes were counted, he would win; or as some sort of intimation of stealing the election himself. In any case, discouraging civic participation contradicts the basic principle of a government by, for, and of the people.

14. Celebrated the antidemocratic strongman Viktor Orbán.

At the same rally, Trump talked about his love for one of the most repressive leaders in Europe: “There’s a man, Viktor Orbán, did anyone ever hear of him? He’s probably, like, one of the strongest leaders anywhere in the world. He’s the leader of Turkey,” Trump said, adding that he had a “front” on Russia. In fact, Orbán is the leader of Hungary (Trump later corrected himself), and neither country shares a border with Russia. More to the point, Orbán—who proudly describes himself as “illiberal”—is an authoritarian who has become a darling of the Trumpist right, as my colleague Anne Applebaum has explained.

15. Promised to indict Joe Biden.

The biggest headlines out of Trump’s October 29 rally in Sioux City, Iowa, came from his confusing the city with Sioux Falls, South Dakota—the sort of slipup that undermines his attacks on Biden as senile. But the more substantively disturbing thing Trump said at the rally was that his own indictments would give him permission to politically prosecute his predecessor. “They brought our country to a new level, and, but that allows—think of this—that allows us to do it to Biden, when he gets out,” Trump said. “And that would be very easy.”

In a Univision interview that aired November 9, he added: “They have done something that allows the next party—I mean, if somebody, if I happen to be president and I see somebody who’s doing well and beating me very badly, I say ‘Go down and indict them.’ They’d be out of business, they’d be out of the election.” This goes beyond Trump’s suggestion of going after his opponents in a general way. Few things could be more directly counter to the idea of a democratic republic, and more redolent of a failed state, than a pretextual prosecution of one’s predecessor.

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