Column: Trump’s words can incite violence. Why don’t more Americans care?

Donald Trump standing on a stage with a flag and pointing into the audience
Former President Trump takes the stage Friday at the California Republican Convention in Anaheim. His verbal attacks translate to real-life security threats.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

There is something even more frightening than how freely Donald Trump gives license to political violence by his toxic rhetoric. It’s that we Americans have become inured to his poison.

The nation collectively shrugs — “It’s just Trump being Trump.” And I’m not just talking about his millions of supporters, who laugh, clap, ignore, or, in too many cases, act on his provocations, or threaten to. How can this man be the overwhelming favorite of one of our political parties to be president again?

Opinion Columnist

Jackie Calmes

Jackie Calmes brings a critical eye to the national political scene. She has decades of experience covering the White House and Congress.

Trump won’t change, but we voters and the media must, and before the 2024 election. We must stop normalizing nasty; our detachment is dangerous. If Trump could ever credibly deny that he was not fomenting violence by his bilge, he lost that excuse on Jan. 6, 2021. Numerous other incidents attest to the perverse power of his words. He knows what he’s doing.


Take just the last few weeks. Disparate news stories — about a Republican senator, a four-star general, a 20-something former Trump aide and a political spouse — came and too-quickly went, all of them bound by a common thread: the real-life threat that Trump poses by his incessant attacks on his fellow Americans.

You may have forgotten these news bits, if you heard about them at all. They would have been big, multiday news reports if the transgressor were, say, President Biden instead of Trump. (Heck, a report that ol’ Biden supposedly wears tennis shoes to guard against pratfalls got more attention.) That these stories weren’t bigger news speaks to our regrettable tolerance of Trump’s incitements.

Don’t blame Democrats for tit-for-tat impeachments. It’s Republicans who are normalizing the most extreme check on the presidency.

Sept. 21, 2023

In mid-September, the Atlantic reported that Utah Sen. Mitt Romney spends $5,000 a day for security for himself and his family, given the threats he receives as a Trump critic and frequent target. Romney lamented that other Republican senators mostly remain silent about Trump, though they disdain him as much as Romney does, and didn’t vote to convict him after his post-Jan. 6 impeachment. But, Romney conceded, the others can’t afford protection.

As he mused, “It only takes one really disturbed person.”

Stop and think about that: U.S. senators won’t condemn the contemptible Trump because they’re scared for their lives. Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon famously intimidated politicians, but their enemies lists didn’t amount to hit lists.

Then there was the news that Trump, incensed by a profile of Gen. Mark A. Milley that chronicled Milley’s efforts as chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to block then-President Trump’s mad and unconstitutional demands, suggested the general was guilty of treason and deserving of execution (“DEATH!”). Trump repeated the charge of treason Friday during a California visit.

During a campaign stop at a Westwood ice cream parlor Friday, former President Trump said he may attend his civil trial that begins Monday in New York that will determine the size of his penalty, as much as $250 million, for overstating the value of assets to get better loan terms.

Sept. 29, 2023

That outrage predictably heightened concerns about retribution from Trump’s MAGA militants. Milley has said he has adequate security and is taking ”appropriate measures to ensure my safety and the safety of my family.” Imagine: A four-star decorated combat veteran having to take protective measures because of the words of the former (and future?) commander in chief.


A Fox News analyst excused Trump’s words: “Now in fairness the former president was counter punching” because of Milley’s “unflattering” comments about Trump. The analyst also pointed out that Trump had not directly called for Milley’s execution, as some reports had it. That’s sort of like arguing that Trump’s tweet in the weeks before Jan. 6, “Be there, will be wild!” didn’t mention a Capitol rampage.

Then there’s the recent coverage of Cassidy Hutchinson, the former Trump White House aide who showed more courage than Republican senators by her damning testimony to the House Jan. 6 committee last year. Now she’s written a book. What is new, what jumps out, is her account of the price she’s paid for provoking Trump, who punched back (er, down) and thus triggered his backers: Hutchinson, at 26 younger than Trump’s daughters, was advised by security officials that she wasn’t safe in Washington. She went into hiding in Atlanta.

“He is dangerous for the country,” Hutchinson warns. Believe her.

Special counsel Jack Smith’s team has asked Judge Tanya Chutkan to rein in the former president’s incendiary rhetoric. His response is legally laughable.

Sept. 26, 2023

California Republicans clearly don’t. On Friday, Trump headlined their fall convention and mocked the grisly hammer attack last fall on Paul Pelosi by a far-right conspiracist intending to kidnap former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “How’s her husband doing, by the way? Anybody know?” Trump teased. The wall around their San Francisco home “didn’t do a very good job,” he added with a smirk. His audience guffawed, cheered and applauded. Shame on them.

That same day, spurred by Trump’s recent incendiary words — including against potential trial witnesses — special counsel Jack Smith filed an updated request for a gag order with the judge handling the federal case alleging Trump plotted to overturn his 2020 election loss. Judge Tanya Chutkan, herself the recipient of Trump’s invective and the MAGA death threats that invariably follow, has set a hearing for Oct. 16.

As difficult as it would be to enforce a gag order against a defendant-cum-presidential candidate, there should be no doubt that Trump must be stifled for the sake of the judge, jury, prosecutors and witnesses. Again, think about that: A former and possibly future president is so reckless about inciting political violence that he merits a legal order to shut up.

Trump is injecting venom into the nation’s bloodstream as fast as his thumbs can punch and his mouth can move. Scholars have a term for it: stochastic terrorism, “the use of mass media to provoke random acts of ideologically motivated violence.”


Yet we’ve become all but immune to this venom. As Biden noted last week in Arizona, speaking about the threat to democracy from political violence: “The silence is deafening.” He meant from Republicans, but his admonition goes to each of us.