The rhetorical tool that allows Trump to incite violence without ‘inciting violence’

He’s not joking. He’s using a tactic that we should take seriously.

CREDIT: AP PHOTO/EVAN VUCCI
CREDIT: AP PHOTO/EVAN VUCCI

Donald Trump is sparking a fresh round of debate over whether or not the Republican nominee was intentionally encouraging the assassination of Hillary Clinton and her judicial nominees on Tuesday when he suggested that “Second Amendment people” could be the key to stopping his opponent from appointing judges to the Supreme Court.

Regardless of his intentions, there’s a good reason why comments like these strike a nerve among the American public — and why they feel so threatening to people who have personal connections to gun violence.

Throughout his campaign, Trump has exemplified a rhetorical strategy that mirrors the way extremists incite violence among their followers.

“Throughout his campaign, Trump has exemplified a rhetorical strategy that mirrors the way extremists incite violence among their followers.”

In a piece published in Rolling Stone, law professor David Cohen argues that Trump is engaging in what’s known as “stochastic terrorism” — an academic term that refers to the act of using suggestive language to inspire radicals to carry out violent acts. In this scenario, a lone wolf terrorist wouldn’t be explicitly instructed to commit their crimes, but they would be encouraged by rhetoric that appears to normalize that type of activity.

“Though most of the people hearing that call may claim he was joking, given what we know about people taking up arms in this country, there will undoubtedly be some people who think he was serious and consider the possibility,” Cohen writes. “Predicting any one particular individual following his call to use violence against Clinton or her judges is statistically impossible. But we can predict that there could be a presently unknown lone wolf who hears his call and takes action in the future.”

Trump’s Second Amendment comment fits into his larger pattern of implicit communication — and a subsequent response from his supporters — that tracks with the definition of stochastic terrorism.

The real estate mogul has joked that he could shoot someone on the street without hurting his political popularity, said that protesters opposed to his political ideas should be “roughed up,” worked closely with people who call for the execution of Hillary Clinton, and suggested that the problem with America is that “nobody wants to hurt each other anymore.”

And as ThinkProgress has previously reported, there’s evidence that these attitudes from Trump are inspiring his supporters to commit acts of violence and hatred across the country. Trump may not be explicitly instructing the supporters who attend his rallies to punch people in the face, but he’s creating a culture of encouragement rather than condemnation for those actions.

This isn’t just a hypothetical academic concept. Cohen points out that, aside from Trump, there’s a very clear example of stochastic terrorism playing out in our society: the extreme rhetoric in the anti-abortion community.

Right-wing activists who want to stop abortion at all costs don’t exactly instruct people to go out and murder abortion doctors or bomb abortion clinics. In fact, the major leaders of the anti-choice movement frequently insist they don’t support violence in any form and typically attempt to distance themselves from the most radical actors in the movement.

Still, the inflammatory language used by militant anti-choice groups has a chilling effect. Suggesting that abortion doctors are criminals, monsters, baby killers, and deserving of harsh punishment helps dehumanize providers — ultimately making them easier targets for the death threats, arson, bombings, and shootings that have plagued abortion clinics for decades.

Crosses placed by anti-abortion protesters stand in the lawn outside the South Wind Women’s Center in Wichita, Kansas. CREDIT: AP PHOTO
Crosses placed by anti-abortion protesters stand in the lawn outside the South Wind Women’s Center in Wichita, Kansas. CREDIT: AP PHOTO

Casual comments that it would be a “blessing to the babies” to shoot abortion doctors, for example, go a long way toward creating an overall environment of fear among the people who work in the reproductive health field.

Cohen knows what he’s talking about here. Along with co-author Krysten Connon, he recently published a book about the violence and harassment that abortion providers are subject to simply for doing their jobs. In the course of that research, Cohen and Connon interviewed dozens of employees who work at abortion clinics, many of whom said that they feel personally threatened by the backlash from abortion opponents — in some cases, even when it comes to comments that the average American probably wouldn’t find frightening.

Because of the legacy of anti-abortion violence in this country, providers are acutely aware that being referred to as a murderer in an online anti-choice forum or having their personal information published on a mock “wanted” flyer could have serious ripple effects. It could be what it takes to push a far-right gunman into taking action. It’s happened many times before.

“The people in the profession are acutely aware of what’s happened to people before them,” Cohen told ThinkProgress in a previous interview. “People have been murdered at home, at work, at church. The message is: You’re not safe anywhere. There’s a strong collective memory among providers about this, and the extremists play off this history.”

In other words, context matters. Something that seems innocuous to an outsider can actually feel much more sinister to the people who could be on the receiving end of the violence and harassment that’s being joked about.

The same thing is playing out right now with Donald Trump’s candidacy. After months of rhetoric from Trump and his supporters that condones violence — as well as dehumanizing rhetoric that suggests Hillary Clinton is a criminal who should be jailed or even killed— it doesn’t matter that Trump claims he’s not actually suggesting that harming his opponents is okay.

“He has incited violence against Hillary Clinton and/or her judges, even if he doesn’t know exactly who will carry that violence out,” Cohen warns.