In a column for the conservative Bulwark, two political science professors from Amherst surveyed the comments and tweets made by Donald Trump and concluded that there has never been an American president who has gone to such great pains to encourage their followers to physically harm their critics.
Calling Trump the "vigilante president," Austin Sarat and Jonathan Obert began to make their case by pointing out that, "Twice in a 24-hour period, the president of the United States took to Twitter to endorse violence," with his retweet of a video from a supporter who maintained "The only good Democrat is a dead Democrat,” and then calling George Floyd protesters “THUGS” before warning, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
"Trump is by no means the first American president to talk tough or to threaten the use of violence. But other presidents, mindful of the chief executive’s role as the leader of the entire nation, were focused on America’s public power and its legitimate use of force," the authors wrote. "The president’s recent tweets were just the latest example of his penchant for threatening, encouraging, or obliquely endorsing violence directed against individual political opponents and/or racial minorities."
Noting that the president's often violent rhetoric when talking about his opponents dates back to his 2016 campaign for the presidency, the authors maintain that he has only become worse as he settled into the presidency.
Quoting the president telling a crowd last year, "I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump—I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough—until they go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad," the professors claimed that is the rhetoric of a vigilante.
"Such talk, with its implicit or overt threats of violence, is very much in keeping with America’s vigilante tradition, which can be traced back to the early nineteenth century and reached its heyday in the years leading up to the Civil War," they explained. "Indeed, much as with the lynching that emerged after the Civil War, vigilantism has often been associated with protecting white American power. From the 19th century to today, vigilantes have seen themselves as defending values and ways of life that they believe the government is not adequately protecting. And they have been willing, when necessary, to act outside the law, using violence."
Explaining that, "President Trump has been able to tap into the vigilante tradition, drawing on both its anger and self-righteousness, the authors added, "And that is why he so often encourages or praises private, illegal violence."
"It is, unfortunately, also not surprising that President Trump has continued to embrace vigilantism in order to escalate the cultural war into something even more serious," they wrote before concluding, "Like all vigilantes, confident in their ability to right wrongs and avenge apparent wrongdoing, the president seems oblivious or indifferent to the fact that his casual remarks and incendiary tweets are tearing this country apart and risking the welfare of all who live in the United States."
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