The Memo: Trump’s death wish attack on McConnell sets alarm bells ringing

Former President Trump’s penchant for violent language has bubbled to the fore again in his feud with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

Trump’s latest salvo was the ominous assertion that McConnell must have a “DEATH WISH” merely for supporting some legislation that was backed by Democrats.

The remark, posted on the Truth Social platform Friday, has drawn some degree of condemnation beyond the ranks of liberals and Democrats. 

The comment will also deepen the toxicity of a political atmosphere in which many lawmakers are already taking security measures in response to increased threats of violence.

The editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal, which are reliably conservative, condemned the “DEATH WISH” comment as “ugly even by Mr. Trump’s standards.” 

Trump, the Journal’s editors wrote, “always puts himself first, and with this rhetoric, he may put others at genuine risk of harm.”

Other, more predictable voices also blasted Trump.

Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), speaking at an event at Syracuse University on Monday, called the former president’s remarks an “absolutely despicable, racist attack.” The assertion of racism was in reference to language from Trump in the same post targeting McConnell’s wife, Elaine Chao, who was born in Taiwan.

Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), the chairman of the House select committee on Jan. 6 — on which Cheney also serves — called Trump’s comments “inflammatory and racist.” Thompson, too, warned that they “could incite political violence.”

Those are grimly realistic warnings given that the nation is already seeing an upsurge in threats — and worse — against lawmakers and other political figures.

Within the past few months, one man has been charged with the attempted murder of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, a conservative, and another with felony stalking of Congressional Progressive Caucus Chairwoman Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.). Another man attacked Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.), a gubernatorial candidate, at a campaign event.

In the Jayapal case, Brett Forsell allegedly showed up at Jayapal’s home armed and shouting obscenities. He has pleaded not guilty.

In the Kavanaugh case, 26-year-old Nicholas Roske was arrested having traveled cross-country to Kavanaugh’s home, allegedly in possession of a pistol and ammunition. He, too, has pleaded not guilty.

A New York Times investigation published Saturday noted that recorded threats against lawmakers had risen about tenfold between 2016 and 2021. 

The Times’s analysis of threats that resulted in indictments found that more than one-third came from GOP or Trump supporters against their ideological opponents, while almost one-quarter came from Democrats and were aimed at Republicans or conservatives. The rest could not be ideologically categorized.

The Times’s report also quoted lawmakers across the political spectrum expressing alarm. 

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) told the newspaper that her office receives an “astronomical” number of threats and that she worried the broad problem would not get the attention it merits “unless someone gets hurt.”

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) told the Times, “I wouldn’t be surprised if a senator or House member were killed” and lamented that there had been “erosion of any boundaries of what is acceptable behavior.”

McConnell has been a frequent target of Trump’s ire, as the former president has railed against him as an “old crow” and a “hack politician,” among other things. The Senate minority leader and his inner circle almost never respond to Trump’s barbs, believing that doing so only fuels the fires of media outrage upon which the former president thrives.

Republican elected officials have, for the most part, avoided rejecting Trump’s remarks.

Sen. Rick Scott (Fla.), the head of the Senate Republicans’ campaign fundraising arm, told CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday merely that he was going to “try my best to bring people together.” 

Scott also told CNN’s “State of the Union” that Trump “likes to give people nicknames,” though he did say that it is “never ever OK to be a racist.”

The extraordinarily mild pushback from the Senate GOP against a former president raising an implicit threat against its leader would have been unthinkable in the pre-Trump era. 

But as with much else over the past six years, everything has now changed.

“It’s just one more example of the belligerent, dangerous language that Trump is willing to use,” said Heidi Beirich, co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism. “Once again, he is using violent language against other people and it’s appalling.”

Beirich invoked the French concept of a cordon sanitaire — essentially, a consensus that certain ideas, ideologies or threats have to be excluded from the political discourse for the common good — and said that “it has just collapsed, and collapsed mostly on the right.”

Allan Lichtman, a professor of history at American University, asserted, “We have never seen anything like Donald Trump. We have never seen a president or a former president being so willing to threaten and incite violence.”

Lichtman argued that “bothsidesism” was flawed when it comes to the threat of political violence.

Attacks aimed by the left at Republicans, Lichtman argued, “are not instigated by a former president, and I don’t see that they were incited by any major Democratic leader.”

Conservatives contend that the linkage between Trump’s rhetoric and actual violence is exaggerated. They also argue that Democratic leaders have contributed to a coarsening of political debate and dangerous hyperbole, as when President Biden recently equated elements of Trump’s “MAGA” populism to “semi-fascism.”

But however the blame is exactly proportioned, the picture is bleak and getting bleaker.

Beirich asserted that credible threats of political violence “predominate on the far-right extremity to a huge level.”

“But I do think we have normalized … that violence in politics is somehow an OK thing to talk about,” she added.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage. 

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Bennie Thompson Brett Kavanaugh Donald Trump Elaine Chao Jan. 6 attack Lee Zeldin Liz Cheney Liz Cheney Mitch McConnell Pramila Jayapal Pramila Jayapal Rick Scott Susan Collins

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