Thursday, August 11, 2016

The crosshairs dog-whistle: A history

EXTREMISM IN the pursuit of the presidency is no rarity. We’ve seen this more than a few times in this campaign season, a year crowded with so many occasions of jaw-dropping arrogance, outrageous contradictions and just plain bad manners, it’s beggared the imagination of how much worse things could get.

We found out on Tuesday. Donald Trump, the Republican nominee and moneyed attention addict, spoke at a campaign rally in Wilmington, N.C., invoking one part of the Constitution that he suggested could help rescue his floundering campaign.

With a Chicken Little scenario, Trump raised the possibility that gun rights advocates may well seek to make a forcible change if Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee, is elected president and chooses to appoint judges supporting more restrictive gun control measures.

Trump said it would be “a horrible day” if Clinton were elected and made her choice for the next Supreme Court justice. “If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks,” Trump said. Then he added: “Although the Second Amendment people — maybe there is, I don’t know.”

It was an invocation of the constitutional amendment that confers unto American citizens the right to bear arms.

As you might expect, the furor erupted immediately. California Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell took to Trump’s favorite soapbox, Twitter, to call for the Secret Service to speak to Trump about his comments, which for him amounted to a call for Clinton’s assassination. “Donald Trump suggested someone kill Sec. Clinton. We must take people at their word.”

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TEAM TRUMP released the obligatory clarification, insisting Trump was referring to the “power of unification.”

“Second Amendment people have amazing spirit and are tremendously unified, which gives them great political power,” said Trump spokesman Jason Miller. “And this year, they will be voting in record numbers, and it won’t be for Hillary Clinton, it will be for Donald Trump.”

Also as expected, the Clinton campaign weighed in. Clinton's campaign manager Robby Mook said: "This is simple — what Trump is saying is dangerous. A person seeking to be the President of the United States should not suggest violence in any way."

“Words matter,” Clinton said at a Wednesday rally in Des Moines. “If you are running to be president or you are president of the United States, words can have tremendous consequences. Yesterday we witnessed the latest in a long line of casual comments from Donald Trump that crossed the line.”

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“Words matter.” It’s apparently good advice the Clinton campaign has taken this campaign. Unlike eight years and two months ago.

Strap yourself into the wayback machine. The dial’s set for May 23, 2008. Location: Sioux Falls, S.D. There, at a meeting with editors of the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, Clinton was discussing her failing campaign, its prospects for the future, and the persistent calls for her to exit a race she couldn’t win. Despite entreaties for her to withdraw coming from the media and from Obama’s campaign, she said, “historically, that makes no sense.”

“My husband did not wrap up the nomination in 1992 until he won the California primary somewhere in the middle of June, right?" she continued. "We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California.”

The firestorm that erupted from that last sentence was deeply problematical for the 2008 Clinton campaign; in one wrong move — obliquely referencing the June 1968 assassination of Robert F. Kennedy as a reason for staying in the race — Team Hillary undercut whatever speculation there may have been about joining Obama on the ticket.

In a single utterance, Clinton — at the helm of a campaign that was, I wrote back then, “panoramically flawed [and] irreversibly doomed” — effectively ended that presidential campaign and began the journey, public and private, that brought her and us to this one.

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IT’S FAIR to say Clinton has learned a lot since 2008. She’s now in the pole position that Barack Obama enjoyed eight years ago. What I thought was true for Clinton 2008 is the case today for Team Trump, “a campaign whose appetite for self-destruction seems almost pathological.”

But Clinton’s mistake eight years ago and Trump’s comment on Tuesday show us that the crosshairs dog-whistle has no expiration date in American politics. It’s as ominous and desperate now as it was then, regardless of one's political affiliation.

Candidates should have known better than; they should definitely know better now. Failing this test of campaign decorum and national sensitivity deserves to be a disqualifier for the presidency. It was in 2008. Here’s a hope of history repeating.

Image credits: Trump: AP/Evan Vucci. Clinton: via CBC News.

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