By Robert Reich
I can’t remain silent in the face of Trump’s tirade against Mitch McConnell. On Friday, Trump criticized McConnell for approving Democratic bills, and asked rhetorically if McConnell has done so “because he hates Donald J. Trump, and he knows I am strongly opposed to them.” Trump concluded by asserting that McConnell “has a DEATH WISH.”
These are ugly and dangerous words even by Trump’s own rock-bottom standard of indecency. They could be interpreted by some Trump followers as a direct provocation to violence against McConnell. (Recall that some took his angry rhetoric about former Vice President Mike Pence seriously on Jan. 6.)
Trump added racial bigotry to his words, suggesting that McConnell “seek help and advice from his China loving wife, Coco Chow!” (For Trump, Elaine Chao’s real offense was resigning as transportation secretary after Trump’s disgraceful behavior on Jan. 6.)
These are hardly Trump’s first provocations to violence but their cumulative effect is mounting. As the New York Times noted this weekend, members of Congress in both parties are experiencing a surge in threats and confrontations as violent speech has morphed into in-person intimidation and physical altercation.
In the months since the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol — which brought lawmakers and the vice president within feet of rioters threatening their lives — Republicans and Democrats have faced stalking, armed visits to their homes, vandalism and assaults.
In the five years after Trump was elected in 2016, following a campaign featuring a remarkable level of violent language, the number of recorded threats against members of Congress soared more than tenfold, to 9,625 last year, according to figures from the Capitol Police. In just the first quarter of 2022 (the latest for which figures are available), the Capitol Police opened 1,820 cases. The pace is likely to surge in the coming weeks as midterm elections approach.
In 2018, I had a conversation with a retired Republican member of Congress who told me it was dangerous for him or any other prominent person in his state to say anything critical of Trump. I asked him what he meant by “dangerous.” He explained that lawmakers who criticized Trump were receiving death threats. That was before the Big Lie, and before the attack on the Capitol.
The pattern is clear. Decency erodes if indecency is not condemned. Silence in the face of dangerous provocation invites ever more dangerous provocation. Intimidation by credible threats of violence invites further threats and, eventually, real violence. Students of history will note the similarities between what we have been witnessing in recent years and events in Germany in the 1930s, leading to the atrocities of Adolf Hitler.
Everyone in public life — including leading Democrats, Joe Biden, and Republican leaders, including Mitch McConnell — must condemn Trump’s invitations to violence and bigotry. And they must also demand that Trump be held criminally accountable for his attempted coup, his instigation of the assault on the Capitol, and his theft of top-secret government documents.