he most fair reading of president Donald Trump’s persistent attacks on Congresswoman Ilhan Omar is that the president has entered the Henry II phase of his tyranny. During one of his disputes with Archbishop Thomas Beckett, Henry II is said to have exclaimed, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” (he didn’t really say it that way)—and, later, four knights assassinated Thomas Beckett, believing they were acting on the king’s orders. One assumes that our barely literate, intellectually incurious, spiritually bankrupt president has never heard the story, but one imagines he’d like it if Stephen Miller read it to him at bedtime.
Trump’s incitement against Omar is the latest eruption of Trump’s established pattern of exhorting his followers to violence. During the campaign, he told supporters at a rally that if they saw someone about to throw a tomato, they should “knock the crap out of them,” adding that he would “pay for [the] legal fees.” In fact, Trump did say that he was thinking of paying the legal fees of a supporter who sucker-punched a man at a rally in North Carolina (Trump didn’t, of course, because Trump is a cheap liar). Trump also warned that the “Second Amendment people” might do something about Hillary Clinton, if she won. Just recently he suggested that there might be violence if he was impeached.
That’s just off the top of my head. There are many, many more comments Trump has made that have suggested an affinity for violence. There are many more violent people he supports. Trump uses language, both what he says and what he doesn’t say, to encourage his supporters to commit acts of violence. His aides that go on TV argue that, essentially, Trump is too stupid and glib to know what he’s saying. But, given the pattern, a reasonable observer would be forced to conclude that Trump actively wants violence to be done against his perceived enemies.
Most likely, Trump has already gotten people killed. The Christchurch, New Zealand, mass murderer is the most obvious and deadly doppelgänger for the four knights who killed Thomas Beckett. The killer directly cited Trump as “a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose.” But there are more subtle clues that the very worst people hear President Trump loud and clear. Hate crimes are up 17 percent since 2016. And there was the white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville—the one Trump would retroactively describe as including “good people on both sides”—which led to the death of Heather Heyer.
We should call Trump’s statements and tweets “incitement” to criminal behavior, but the standard for such a charge, as interpreted by the Supreme Court under the First Amendment, is that the speech must encourage “imminent” lawless action, or the speech must be likely to produce such imminent crime. Saying “snitches get stitches” in the middle of the street would not be “incitement.” Saying “snitches get stitches” in the middle of the street outside the snitch’s house, while pointing at it, to a crowd of people all armed with stitch-inducing paraphernalia—well, now you might be outside the bounds of “protected speech.”
Our current standard here comes from a case called Brandenburg v. Ohio, in which a Klansman, the aforementioned Brandenburg, was convicted under an Ohio law that made it a crime to advocate “crime, sabotage, violence, or unlawful methods of terrorism.” The Supreme Court threw out that conviction and gave us the current standard of “imminent” criminal action.
How do you think the current, conservative Supreme Court would rule on a case where it was a Muslim, not a white supremacist, who was arrested and convicted for advocating “unlawful methods of terrorism”? Do you think we’d hear a lot from conservatives about how the offensive speech was protected because it didn’t immediately result in a crime? These days, Muslims can barely advocate for a set of fashion statements without conservative scholars buying pearls so they have something to clutch.
We don’t have to imagine the double standard, because we’re seeing it play out in real time. Ilhan Omar has said nothing as offensive or dangerous to anybody as what Trump says about Muslims in general and Omar specifically. Omar hasn’t authored or promised to author legislation to ban people entry to this country based on their religion. Omar hasn’t referred to other people’s countries as “shitholes.” She hasn’t offered to pay legal fees as a bounty for any of her supporters who commit violence. Her statement, the one she is being punished for—that all Muslims are blamed for the conduct of a few—was not controversial; it’s an obvious fact to most people who achieve non-whiteness through methods that don’t involve shoe polish.
But she’s the one under attack. Trump is literally putting her life in danger, yet the law does nothing to stop him. His threats and attacks are being amplified through inaccurate reporting by the Rupert Murdoch empire, both through the New York Postand Fox News, and yet they hide behind the freedom of the press. Trump is riling up his supporters on Twitter, a platform that is not even subject to the rigorous standards of the First Amendment, and yet people throw up their hands and say, “Well, freedom of speech.”
What is it going to take before the law does something to stop this growing lynch mob? If I talked about the stupid subway the way Trump talks about Muslims, I’d get a visit from the Department of Homeland Security. If I tweeted about Trump Tower the way Trump tweets about Omar, I’d get a visit from DHS and the Secret Service. Law enforcement, Twitter, and every media organization, big and small, take threats to public officials very seriously—unless those threats are made against brown public officials and come from the White House, apparently. Then it’s just all how some Klan jerkface established the right of white people to threaten whomever they want as long as they’re not physically in the room where it happens.
Just like Henry II, Trump has the good sense not to give the order. Trump is no student of history, but he has intuited that he can accomplish as many of his nefarious goals through the ambition of his sycophants as through the allegiance of his henchmen. He supposes—correctly—that the law is set up to protect his style of white supremacy, as opposed to rooting it out. If you pick four sentences from Donald Trump at random, one of them is bound to be dangerously racist, but he is the one who is protected from threats, not the people he threatens.
Which is why he’s not going to stop until more violence is committed in his name. He’s got a taste for it now. He knows what he’s doing. He’s growing more confident. It’s the power trip that we’ve read about in every good biography of any tyrant throughout history. He says something here and somebody he thinks is “bad” is hurt or dies there. If you want to understand this part of the Trump presidency, you don’t need to read Shakespeare, you need to watch Dexter.
Donald Trump is no longer playing politics. He’s playing God. I’m afraid for Omar. I’m afraid for all of us.