Words Matter: a discussion of violent political rhetoric 2008-2016

Words Matter: or, One Reason We’re Where We Are


Because I’ll tell you what, you’re gonna have a rough July at that convention.”

—-Donald Trump


I was struck by the surprise and outrage from Reince Priebus and others over the nasty tone of the Republican primary campaign. Specifically, I was struck by the fact that they professed to be surprised. The latest outrage has been the threats of violence from Donald Trump and his supporters. Trump has darkly warned of riots, in the tone of one whose “warnings” are in fact a promise, if he is denied the Republican nomination. As he is repeatedly outmaneuvered by the Machiavellian delegate-hunting strategies of Ted Cruz, Trump’s supporters have taken to making death threats against delegates and party officials whom they suspect are siding against The Donald. Repeatedly, the frontrunner for the Republican nomination tells us that the system is rigged, that he is being robbed, and that his followers will rise up to oppose this oppression with force.

All of this is nothing new to us who are not card-carrying Tea Party Republicans. In fact, this rhetoric has been so common from conservatives ever since they crashed the world economy and lost the 2008 Presidential election that we’ve almost become used to it. It has come from self-styled “heroes” and “patriots” like the Michigan Hutaree militia, which plotted to assassinate Obama in 2009. In 2014 it came from Cliven Bundy, the tax-dodger who proclaimed that he didn’t even recognize the United States as existing, who raised a private army to point guns at federal officers doing their duty, and who was put on a white horse carrying an American flag while FOX News called him a hero. It has come from two of Budy’s followers, who shot and killed three people in Las Vegas. But it has also come from elected Republican officials. It came from Sharon Engle, an elected Nevada state representative who was running against Harry Reid for the Senate, and said quite seriously that she and her supporters might have to turn to “Second Amendment” remedies and kill Reid if he defeated her in the election. It came in 2009 from state governments of Georgia, Oklahoma, North Dakota, South Dakota, Tennessee, Idaho, Louisiana and Alaska, who threatened armed rebellion against the federal government if Obama and Congress enacted any policies they disapproved of. It came from Michelle Bachmann, a U.S. Senator and once a frontrunner for the Republican nomination for President, who said in 2009 that she wanted her supporters to be “armed and dangerous.” It came and still comes from Rush Limbaugh, Michelle Malkin, Glenn Beck and other leading voices of the conservative movement. Anyone who disagrees with a conservative in any way can expect death threats, accusations of treason, and even the promise of eternal damnation.

I am not saying that Reince Priebus, Ted Cruz and the other Republicans are hypocrites for expressing their surprise at the rhetoric of the Trump wing of their party. I think they are genuinely surprised that this rhetoric, which they have freely thrown at others since losing in 2008, is now being turned against them. I think their sense of moral outrage is genuine too. The problem, I think, is that they always knew that they weren’t serious. Conservatives have been using threats of violence to convey a more-or-less pretended sense of outrage and anger.   Think about when Palin was tied to an ad showing Democrats in a sniper’s crosshairs. When one of those targeted, Gabrielle Gifford, was shot, Palin quickly explained that no, the ad didn’t show a rifle scope at all; but of course, it did. Instead, the point was that Palin thought she could make an implied death threat and that everyone would know that it was, essentially, a joke. The fact that the people targeted would not see it as a joke was part of what makes it even funnier to the ones making the threat. It’s the adult equivalent of kids back in the days before Caller I.D. making a prank phone call to threaten some stranger with the murder of her children, terrifying the poor woman and then hanging up and laughing. The person making the threat feels powerful and superior and even feels very clever because he or she knows the person being threatened can’t tell if the threat is real. When actually caught, the person making the threat can just say, “Hey, it was all a joke, no harm done” and hope to get away with it, and then feel extra smart because the other person was too stupid to know it is a joke.

I say “joke” and not “metaphor” for a reason. Using violent language as a metaphor for decisive action is nothing new; but we all know when we hear it that it is merely imagery. We speak of “crushing the competition” or of “getting murdered in the primaries,” but we know nothing is getting crushed and no one was threatened. The point of much of the violent political rhetoric we hear today is to sound at least a little bit dangerous, and to enjoy the feeling of strength that comes from making the implied threat. And furthermore, there seems to be a fair amount of enjoyment not only in engendering fear, but in knowing that the target was deceived because you never really meant it.

The problem is that words matter. When Bachman, Palin, Limbaugh, Malkin, Beck, Bundy, Hannity and others threaten civil war and political assassination, it goes into the “just making a point” part of their tightly compartmentalized brains. They know they don’t mean it, so in their minds it doesn’t matter how their words sound or what they actually, literally mean. But their hearers don’t necessarily know they are joking, or that the joke is on them, the supporters. They believe that their government has been taken over, literally, by a Muslim-Kenyan-atheist-Marxist-radical Afrocentrist Christian. And they believe that they have a God-given duty to disobey and resist this phony political system, even if the leaders chosen actually were elected by the will of the majority of American citizens, because the majority chose wrong.

But what happens when conservative voters as a group, carefully educated to believe that anyone who opposes them is un-American, un-Christian and in league with terrorists and thugs, realizes that the people who told them the truth about the world are themselves not living up to those words? For eight years, conservatives have insisted that the nation was being destroyed, even while it slowly crawled back out of the hole conservatives dug for it (except in places like Kansas and Louisiana, where conservative policies made the bad situation worse). And furthermore, they have been told that “liberals” (or in normal language, moderates) were not merely mistaken, but were deliberately trying to destroy the nation, that a vast conspiracy of scientists and historians and teachers and mainline pastors and progressive priests and immigrants and others were quite consciously trying to ruin the USA out of some sort of self-loathing. And then The Donald comes along, and says exactly what the conservative grassroots have been hearing for eight years; and the Republican establishment turns on him. The Republican establishment is, after all, part of The Establishment. Naturally, those dyed-in-the-wool anti-establishment conservatives will turn that same rhetoric of political violence against their opponents.

Lying for short-term political gain is as old as politics itself. Jane Goodall even observed chimpanzees using deceit, so lying predates language. Greater human social intelligence allows us to consider the downside of such tactics. A classic example is the fable of the Boy Who Cried Wolf. The moral of the story is that if you lie, when the day comes that you tell the truth no one will believe you. The Republican problem is similar but opposite: people believe their lies too much. This too is a common problem in politics; leaders demonize the other side when it suits them to rally their followers, and then those followers judge the leaders to be traitors when they make a necessary bargain with the “bad guys.” Conservative Republicans have demonized almost everyone, it seems: scientists as a class, religious institutions that advocate for the poor and oppressed, even if they cite the words of Jesus, Muslims, the Occupy Wall Street movement is inherently violent, and so on. The last one is especially egregious, since a self-professed conservative journalist with the Breitbart web site boasts that he himself tried to provoke a peaceful protest to riot, and when it failed to riot on its own, himself posing as a protestor committed the only act of violence at its rally. The list of imagined persecutions and concocted conspiracies alleged by conservatives is too lengthy to be catalogued. But in fact, under the First Amendment, religious differences and political debate are permanent parts of our society. Any political leader must work out an accommodation with people who have a wide range of religious, economic and political beliefs. A politician may win an election by telling voters those others are devils, but in the end he or she must either make deals with those devils, or overthrow the Constitution and impose some sort of Christian Dominionist dictatorship. And worse, arguing against scientists as a class, and science as an institution, is arguing not against the man-made laws of the Constitution, but against reality and the very laws of Creation itself. Eventually, reality wins. So a successful leader must eventually make peace with science, with education, with historical truths, as well as with people with different religions and different politics and even, to some extent, different morals. But if that leader became a leader by promising to crush, or at least ignore and reject all those people, then that leader will eventually have to betray his or her followers and thus become one of The Enemy. And that is what has happened to the Republican Party. Donald Trump has simply taken them at their word, judged the establishment Republicans by their own standards, and his supporters are pronouncing sentence.


Alterman, Eric. “Think Again: Crashing Occupy Wall Street;” Center for American Progress Oct. 13, 2011 (https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/general/news/2011/10/13/10438/think-again-crashing-occupy-wall-street/)

Avlon, John. “Wingnuts Excerpt—The Hatriots: Armed and Dangerous.” The Daily Beast March 30, 2010 (http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2010/03/30/wingnuts-excerptmdashthe-hatriots-armed-and-dangerous.html)

Frick, Ali. “Bachman: ‘I Want People to be Armed and Dangerous on this Issue’ of Cap and Trade.” ThinkProgress March23, 2009 (http://thinkprogress.org/politics/2009/03/23/36990/bachmann-armed-and-dangerous/)
Matt McLaughhlin, Dianna Parker, Justiin Berrier and Brooke Obie, “Beck Attacks Social Justice,” Media Matters March 12, 2010) (http://mediamatters.org/research/2010/03/12/beck-attacks-social-justice/161591)
Mandvi, Aasif. “Weathering Fights: What’s Science Really Up To?” The Daily Show, (http://www.cc.com/video-clips/x1h7ku/the-daily-show-with-jon-stewart-weathering-fights—science–what-s-it-up-to-) 10/26/2011
Sneed, Tierney. “GOPers Face Wave of Threats from Trump Fans Incensed by Delegate Counts.” Talking Points Memo.com April 13, 2016 (http://talkingpointsmemo.com/dc/death-threats-trump-supporters)
Stein, Sam. “Sharon Engle Floated ‘Second Amendment Remedies’ as ‘Cure’ for ‘Harry Reid Problem’.” June 16, 2010 (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/06/16/sharron-angle-floated-2nd_n_614003.html)

P.S. This article also argues, from another angle, one of my foundational points:  that conservative rhetoric today is largely a joke that no one who is part of the conservative-industrial complex really believes.  It came out about two days after the first version of this article did, so it seems to be a case of parallel evolution.

Nick Gillespie, “Donald Trump’s Fatal Error was to Take Conservatism Seriously.” The Daily Beast April 25, 2016 (http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/04/25/donald-trump-s-fatal-error-was-to-take-conservatism-seriously.html)

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One Response to “Words Matter: a discussion of violent political rhetoric 2008-2016”

  1. lila1jpw Says:

    Here in Canada we think we have stepped back from the brink because Stephen Harper, an extreme neo-Conservative was defeated. Some of us are waiting for the other shoe to drop as we face TPP which could devastate our healthcare system.

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