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Anyone who thinks Trump was "just joking" about shooting Clinton is missing the point

Donald Trump Holds Campaign Rally In Wilmington, NC (Sara D. Davis/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

At a Tuesday rally, Donald Trump said something that could easily be interpreted as a call for violence against a future Clinton administration.

"Hillary wants to abolish, essentially abolish the Second Amendment," Trump said. "By the way, and if she gets to pick — if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know."

As is common with Trump, it’s unclear exactly what he’s saying — whether it’s a call for assassination, armed insurrection, or something else entirely. But one thing that people have debated a lot after the comment is whether it was a "joke" or meant seriously.

But in a certain sense, it doesn’t really matter what Trump intended. This tweetstorm, from Dallas lawyer Jason P. Steed, explains why.

Before becoming a lawyer, Steed was an English professor. He wrote his PhD dissertation on "the social function of humor" and found something important: Jokes about socially unacceptable things aren’t just "jokes." They serve a function of normalizing that unacceptable thing, of telling the people who agree with you that, yes, this is an okay thing to talk about.

This, Steed explains, is why "it’s a joke" isn’t a good defense of racist jokes. By telling the joke, the person is signaling that they think racism is an appropriate thing to express. "Just joking" is just what someone says to the people who don’t appreciate hearing racist stuff — it shouldn’t matter any more than saying "no offense" after saying something offensive.

Likewise, Trump is signaling that assassinating Hillary Clinton and/or her Supreme Court nominees is an okay thing to talk about. He’s normalizing the unacceptable.

This is a broader problem with Trump’s candidacy. Even if he never makes it into the White House, it’s not clear how much damage his penchant for shattering norms against explicit racism and calls for violence is doing to American politics.

Other candidates have made comments similar to Trump’s — see 2010 Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle’s "Second Amendment remedies" line, among others. The difference here is that Trump is a major party standard-bearer, and so has a great deal more power to normalize the unacceptable. What he says matters a lot — even when he’s "joking."

Watch: This election is about normal vs. abnormal