The Problem with Donald Trump’s Words

By JOE McMAHON

Donald Trump has recently come under fire, yet again, for appearing to suggest that supporters of the 2nd amendment should take matters into their own hands and “stop” Hillary Clinton. While much of the country was, unsurprisingly, outraged by his comment, the Trump campaign tried to paint it in a less threatening light. Spokesperson Jason Miller claimed that the quote was just supposed to encourage people to vote in order to prevent Clinton from becoming president in the first place. On CNN, Trump’s aide Paul Manafort argued, “Most people did not see it as a threat.” Which, honestly, is probably the case. The problem is, Paul, what about the people who did?

Let’s get one thing out of the way. Trump might have meant exactly what Jason Miller said he did. Like most of Trump’s comments, this one was beautifully vague and ambiguous. The fact is, though, that it doesn’t matter what he meant.

While much of the media attention has been on the intent of Trump’s words, the far more important thing to consider is how those words were perceived by his audience. More importantly, how those words were perceived by the darker, more impressionable subset of his audience. The angry, down-on-their-luck audience, perhaps with violent tendencies just looking for someone to blame for their misfortune. Because, believe me, Mr. Trump, that audience did not hear that and think “Well, darn, I better show up in November and vote.” No. What they heard was a man they idolize cavalierly validating those dark thoughts in the back of their minds. What they heard was a man of incredible influence and power making them think that maybe those violent ideas weren’t as wrong as society made them out to be. Maybe, after listening to Donald Trump, they decided that they did have a right to do something about the “Clinton problem.”

The thing that you need to learn, Mr. Trump, is that you cannot choose your audience. You cannot make a dangerous claim and then defend it by saying that you intended it in a different way. Because that doesn’t change how people interpret it. That didn’t stop the racists in this country from jumping all over your incendiary remarks about Mexicans as validation of their racist thoughts. And it’s not going to stop your violent, angry, gun-toting supporters from interpreting your recent comments in a way that could lead to tragedy.

Now, I’m not saying that politicians need to make sure that their words have no dangerous interpretation. That would obviously be possible. But Donald Trump has made a habit of saying intentionally vague and ambiguous things and then hiding behind the excuse of “That’s not what I meant” while watching the world tear itself apart fighting over it. Donald Trump loves saying things that have both a benign interpretation that can protect him and an incendiary interpretation that can capture headlines. His entire campaign has been built on saying things that enrage half the country and excite the other half, while riding the resulting tension and strife all the way to political stardom.

But this time, he’s gone too far. This time, an obvious interpretation of his comments wasn’t just racist or sexist or Islamophobic. This time it was dangerous. This time, the possible repercussions are much more severe. Maybe Trump doesn’t care. Maybe he likes the idea that millions of people interpreted his remarks as a violent threat against Hillary Clinton that could put her life in danger. But hopefully that’s not the case. And if Donald Trump has even one moral bone in his body, that will be the last time he ever makes that kind of a statement.

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