Late Friday night, the former president of the United States—and a leading candidate to be the next president—insinuated that America’s top general deserves to be put to death.
That extraordinary sentence would be unthinkable in any other rich democracy. But Donald Trump, on his social-media network, Truth Social, wrote that Mark Milley’s phone call to reassure China in the aftermath of the storming of the Capitol on January 6, 2021, was “an act so egregious that, in times gone by, the punishment would have been DEATH.” (The phone call was, in fact, explicitly authorized by Trump-administration officials.) Trump’s threats against Milley came after The Atlantic’s publication of a profile of Milley, by this magazine’s editor in chief Jeffrey Goldberg, who detailed the ways in which Milley attempted to protect the Constitution from Trump.
And yet, none of the nation’s front pages blared “Trump Suggests That Top General Deserves Execution” or “Former President Accuses General of Treason.” Instead, the post barely made the news. Most Americans who don’t follow Trump on social media probably don’t even know it happened.
Trump’s rhetoric is dangerous, not just because it is the exact sort that incites violence against public officials but also because it shows just how numb the country has grown toward threats more typical of broken, authoritarian regimes. The United States is not just careening toward a significant risk of political violence around the 2024 presidential election. It’s also mostly oblivious to where it’s headed.
Trump loves to hide behind the thin veneer of plausible deniability, but he knows exactly what he’s doing. If a mob boss were to say, “In times gone by, people like you would have had their legs broken,” nobody would mistake that for a historical observation. The suggestion is clear, and it comes from a man who has one of America’s loudest megaphones—one that is directed squarely at millions of extremists who are well armed, who insist that the government is illegitimate, and who believe that people like Milley are part of a “deep state” plot against the country.
Academics have a formal term for exactly this type of incitement: stochastic terrorism. An influential figure with a large following demonizes a person or a group of people. The likelihood is strong that some small number of followers will take those words literally—when Trump implies that Milley deserves to be put to death, some of his disciples might take it as a marching order. The number of those who take action does not have to be large for the result to be horrific. [Continue reading…]