On Sunday night, during the second presidential debate, Donald Trump told Hillary Clinton that if he were president, “you would be in jail.”
It was a horrifying moment. It was the most authoritarian statement in a campaign that was already pretty authoritarian to begin with.
But after the debate was over, Donald Trump’s campaign seemed to want people to think that it was just a joke.
Trump spokesperson Kayleigh McEnany defended it just that way. People in the audience at the debate were laughing, they pointed out, so it must have been a joke.
@kayleighmcenany defending Trump threatening to lock up Hillary with "it's a joke guys, you don't get jokes?"— AmiLynn (@UsefulAmy) October 10, 2016
Campaign manager Kellyanne Conway adopted a similar line on Monday morning: “That was a quip,” she protested to MSNBC host Willie Geist.
But to his loyal Facebook following, Trump told a very different story. He wants them to believe that the threat to jail Hillary Clinton was entirely serious and entirely real. The morning after the campaign, the clip of Trump telling Clinton she’d be in jail was pinned to the top of the candidate’s Facebook page. And right after the debate, it was turned into a somber — even statesmanlike — meme:
"It's a good thing Trump isn't in charge of the law in this country." -Hillary Clinton "Yeah, because you'd be in jail." -Donald TrumpPosted by Donald J. Trump on Sunday, October 9, 2016
The Trump campaign, normatively speaking, cannot have it both ways. The promise to jail one’s political opponent cannot simultaneously be a lighthearted joke and the subject of a statesmanlike, aspirational black-and-white meme. They cannot simultaneously have no intention of abrogating the rule of law to punish their enemies and have every intention of doing just that.
Descriptively speaking, of course, having it both ways is exactly what they’re trying to do. They’re trying to assuage the fears of mainstream America — and particularly political elites — who see Trump as a disruptive would-be strongman. And at the same time, they’re trying to stoke the passions of their frenetically loyal base — millions of Americans who are hoping to elect Donald Trump as a disruptive would-be strongman.
Do they understand how dangerous this game is?
The Trump campaign is stoking dangerous passions — and gaslighting anyone who tries to point that out
Donald Trump and his campaign have always been more interested in using the irrational fears and aggressive passions of their followers than in tempering them. Even on the rare occasions when some of their followers believe conspiracy theories that even some Trump loyalists agree are genuinely incendiary (say, conspiratorial anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial), the Trump campaign would never go so far as to debunk them. That would be ungrateful to their loyal fans.
Instead, Trump and his campaign have been working to build brand loyalty, and Trump himself is the brand. He promises them that if he’s in office, their wildest dreams will be fulfilled — and if Clinton is elected their republic will die.
Some of Trump’s followers genuinely buy into this. They no longer trust the Republican Party, or conservative media figures like Erick Erickson, or anyone else who isn’t on the Trump Train.
If they were merely in an epistemological bubble, it would be one thing: infuriating, sure, and bad for rational democratic deliberation, but not immediately dangerous. But they’re also in a bubble of irrational exuberance.
These dedicated followers are hyping themselves into believing that Trump, if elected, would accomplish everything he’s promising to do — no matter how impossible given the realities of American governance.
And they’re hyping themselves into believing that Hillary Clinton is a literal criminal and her election would be a literal theft.
And the Trump campaign is doing nothing to moderate their expectations. It’s feeding them. It’s giving them solemn, promissory memes.
This is something about which most Americans should be outraged and terrified. The Trump campaign may not be deliberately trying to goad his followers into engaging in violent resistance if Trump loses, but it’s certainly making that outcome more likely.
But try to raise this to the attention of the public — try to point out the effects of what Trump is saying, and what his campaign is encouraging — and you’ll get: It was a joke.
The Trump campaign is doing a tremendous job of trying to make the rest of America feel like chumps for caring about the prospect that one candidate for president in 2016 would try mightily to abuse his power for vindictive personal ends. For worrying that America’s democratic institution might not be strong enough to stop him.
It’s funny, in a way. Many of Trump’s supporters feel ignored by liberal and government elites, and that sense of overlookedness feeds their rage. But the only people who are actually trying to deflect attention from what Trump’s supporters are feeling, right now, are Trump’s campaign itself.