Same As It Ever Was: Donald Trump’s Decades-Long History with Violence

We may perceive Trump’s capacity for hate and divisiveness as new, but he’s been at it for almost thirty years.

Donald Trump, singing that same old song. Photo by Marc Nozell, licensed CC-BY

Writing about the violence that follows Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is a bit like trying to hit a moving target.

This past Wednesday, at a rally in North Carolina, 78-year-old Trump supporter John McGraw punched protester Rakeem Jones — who was already being escorted off the premises by security — in the face. Asked about it afterward, McGraw told reporters: “You bet I liked it. Knocking the hell out of that big mouth…. The next time we see him, we might have to kill him.”

On Tuesday, Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski allegedly accosted reporter Michelle Fields when she asked the candidate a question on his way out of a press conference in Jupiter, Florida. Trump and his campaign deny that the incident took place as Fields describes. In response, Fields has tweeted this photo of her bruised arm.

And then Friday night, on the University of Illinois’ Chicago campus, a canceled rally devolved into a near riot. Protesters were evicted bodily by event security. Rally-goers “yelled ‘go back to Univision’ at Hispanic people and hurled a racially charged insult at an African American woman.” And when Trump failed to make an appearance, the result was, in the words of The Guardian, a scene of “violence and chaos unparalleled in the recent history of American political campaigning.”

If one were so inclined, one might argue that it is unfair to hold Donald Trump responsible for incidents like these. He himself has told us time and again that he cannot exert control over the people who surround him — he cannot dictate the actions of his pugilistic supporters or even of his own campaign manager. Yet as the number of these cases has grown over the past year or so, and as they have grown more serious, it is impossible to ignore the fact that there is a pattern of hate-driven violence that follows his campaign. And while it is much covered in the media, it perhaps deserves some slightly different contextualization than it has received so far.

The standard media narrative of these types of events is that Trump promotes bigotry. Pundits and reporters point to last June when, in the speech where he officially threw his hat into the ring, he said of undocumented immigrants attempting to cross the U.S. border from Mexico that “they’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”

They point to December when his campaign put out a statement “calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”

They point to the endorsement from “white nationalist and former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard” David Duke who, on his radio program last month, told his listeners that “voting against Donald Trump at this point is really treason to your heritage.”

And they point to Trump’s comments that protests over police violence in Ferguson, Missouri were incited by roving bands of illegal immigrants; that crime is rampant because the police are hamstrung by the rules; and that folks who interrupt him while he is speaking are perhaps plants from Mexico.

Timothy Egan encapsulates this narrative of the Trump campaign when he writes in The New York Times:

Donald Trump’s supporters know exactly what he stands for: hatred of immigrants, racial superiority, a sneering disregard of the basic civility that binds a society. Educated and poorly educated alike, men and women — they know what they’re getting from him.

And it’s true. No doubt.

But what this version of the story doesn’t tell us is that Donald Trump’s vitriolic clown routine is an act with a history. It didn’t begin last June, or even in 2011 when he took up the mantle of birtherism from the white nationalist WorldNetDaily. He’s been doing it — at least — since the 1980s.

His involvement with the 1989 Central Park jogger case is to the point. That year, in the wake of the brutal assault and rape of Trisha Meili that left the 28-year-old investment banker in a coma, Trump published an open letter as a full-page ad in several major New York newspapers rejecting calls from Mayor Ed Koch and others for a deescalation of racial tensions.

In the letter, he makes sweeping generalizations about the “roving bands of wild criminals” that “roam our neighborhoods.” He engages in the least subtle kind of dogwhistle politics, talking explicitly about the race — “White, Black, Hispanic, and Asian” — of good upstanding citizens, and then the “anger” (often code for dark skin) of the criminal class he imagines as young and male. And he devolves explicitly into rancor.

“I want to hate these muggers and murderers,” he says, meaning not just Meili’s attackers, but a whole demographic that he perceives as of their ilk. “I no longer want to understand their anger. I want them to be afraid.”

They should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes. They must serve as examples so that others will think long and hard before committing a crime or an act of violence. Yes, Mayor Koch, I want to hate these murderers and I always will.

At the time, his words were inciting. The idea of execution as retribution that a whole swath of the citizenry should fear spoke to white rage over the crime. “He was the fire starter,” said Yusef Salaam — one of the five young men of color who were arrested and convicted of the crime, and spent almost a decade in jail before they were exonerated in 2002.

Salaam told The Guardian that he didn’t know who Trump was then, but “I knew that this famous person calling for us to die was very serious.”

In fact it was very serious. Donald Trump possessed not just wealth and celebrity in 1989. Two years earlier, in 1987, he had been courted by the New Hampshire Republican Party as a potential challenger to George H. W. Bush’s nomination in the next year’s presidential primary. He went so far that year as to give a high-profile foreign policy address in Portsmouth. And according to The New York Times, party operatives had “put together a draft-Trump movement with the 1,000 signatures necessary to enter him” in the race had he chosen to run.

He chose not to run, in the end. But in 1988, as the race progressed, he raised significant funds for the Republican party, met with Bush, and was reportedly under consideration for the vice-presidency.

As civil rights attorney Michael Warren has said, Trump’s Central Park jogger letter poisoned the minds of potential jurors “who, rightfully, had a natural affinity for the victim.” How could people not be “affected by the inflammatory rhetoric in the ads,” especially when the ads were written by a man with so much standing in New York, and so much stature nationwide?

One member of the audience for his 1987 New Hampshire speech put it this way: ‘he’s very exciting. Money is power and power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.’’

For us, Trump’s brand of divisive rhetoric in those early days takes on an added level of significance. The Donald Trump comments we tend to think of in 2016 as inciting violence at his rallies are the ones that are explicitly about violence at his rallies.

We might, for example, think of his comment aimed at a protester at an event in Nevada in February: “I’d like to punch him in the face.” Or his follow-up, as Vanity Fair has it, “about the ‘good old days’ when agitators would be carried out on a stretcher.”

We might think about Friday at an event in St. Louis, when he said that “part of the problem and part of the reason it takes so long” to kick protesters out “is nobody wants to hurt each other anymore.” That “there used to be consequences,” and “there are none anymore.”

But what about this comment from December on Fox and Friends?

The other thing with the terrorists is you have to take out their families, when you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families. They care about their lives, don’t kid yourself. When they say they don’t care about their lives, you have to take out their families.

This resonates with the inflammatory rhetoric of the Central Park jogger letter in the sense that here again, more than two decades later, Trump is still telling us that terror is the solution to terror, and that acting out of hatred is the solution to hatred. He adds in 2016 that the problem with America’s approach to ISIS is that we’re “fighting a very politically correct war.” But we can imagine an addendum straight from 1989: that “they should be forced to suffer… when they kill.”

And those sorts of comments, supposedly about policy, don’t go unheeded as a feature of the circus that is the Donald Trump campaign. As Timothy Egan says, everything about Trump’s contemporary iteration is about validating our basest instincts toward violence, toward hatred, toward xenophobia, and toward irrational fear.

Back then he talked about how we must “unshackle” police “from the constant chant of ‘police brutality’ which every petty criminal hurls.” Today, he talks about license to “knock the crap out of” people with whom we disagree. (“I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees. I promise. I promise.”)

Back then, he talked about giving “New York city back to the citizens who have earned the right to be New Yorkers.” Today, he talks about “taking back America.”

The calendar year may have changed, but for Donald Trump, the song remains the same.

Senator Elizabeth Warren, speaking to Rachel Maddow on Thursday, said that Trump’s ascension is the Republicans “paying the price for their own extremism.” She said that he is the unintended consequence of them having “given in to their extremists; in fact, they have nursed their extremists along.”

She is right, of course. Except that her words suggest that though the Republican party has opened itself up to an extremist candidate of one sort of another, Trump himself is some kind of outsider that nobody could have foreseen.

And though that is the line the Republican establishment wants to sell, it’s simply not the case.

In 1988, when Trump’s name was being bandied about as a vice-presidential choice, and in 1987, when New Hampshire Republicans were endeavoring to recruit him to the presidency, they already knew what he was about.

In his Portsmouth foreign policy speech, he was already trying out some of the lines that have become so famous today: telling the audience that he is “tired of the United States ‘being kicked around’”; telling them that other countries “are ripping us off”; telling them that we should preemptively “attack Iran and seize some of its oil fields in retaliation for what he called Iran’s bullying of America.”

He even arrived at that speech in his personal “sleek black French-made military helicopter.” Military chic.

In 1987, when Donald Trump first came onto the political scene, he may not have looked quite like the 1989 model, or like 2011 or 2016. But all the elements — the violent rhetoric, the xenophobia, the empty bravado, all of it — were there.

And now, as it looks more and more likely that he is going to be the Republican presidential nominee, the GOP may be able to say truthfully that they didn’t know that a Trump campaign would be quite so undignified, and that they didn’t know that it would happen this year.

But the next time you hear that Trump is some kind of insurgent force in the Republican Party, don’t believe it. He and his capacity for incitement have been part of the GOP mix for years.