In a move that – while shocking – should not have been entirely unexpected, Donald Trump recently made a veiled call for the assassination of Hilary Clinton, should she be elected. In a campaign characterised by wild statements and manifestly un-presidential public behaviour, this is quite something.
Reactions have varied from the (rightly) appalled to the supportive (warning, that last link is to tinfoil hat central, Breibart). Most observers would conclude that even cryptically calling for the elected leader of the nation to be assassinated over the issue of Supreme Court selections is a step way, way too far. I make no bones about it: I believe Trump is a dangerous, ill-informed individual who – if elected – could do untold harm at home and abroad (although on the last point, I would direct you to this informative piece by the University of Reading’s Mara Oliva).
I was, however, curious if this was something that had happened before. Thanks to the wonders of our networked age, I was able to call upon the fantastic expertise of a bunch of great historians.
Cat Bateson commented that – if we consider the 1850s a long build up to the election of 1860 – then there was a considerable amount of violent nationalist discourse floating around. Cat also points to the incident where noted abolitionist Charles Sumner was beaten up on the floor of the Senate by Preston Brooks in 1856.
During the Civil War, there were also a bunch of songs advocating killing Confederate president Jefferson Davis. But, surrounding the 1864 election calls to assassinate Lincoln were absent, through fear of the repercussions if he was killed (and lo and behold…). In the post-Civil War era of Reconstruction, such calls for death were relatively commonplace (as pointed out by David Silkenat).
Patrick Andelic mentioned that back in 1994 Senator Jesse Helms apparently misspoke when he advised that Bill Clinton had “better have a bodyguard” if he were to visit a military base in North Carolina. Leaping forward to 2010, Sharron Angle called for “second amendment remedies” to bring an “out of control Congress” into line (thanks to Jane Judge for the heads up on this). However, it seems that twentieth/twenty-first century calls by one nominee for the killing of their opponent are – to put it mildly – few and far between.
My American History Too! co-host Mark McLay pointed out that Newt “As An Historian” Gingrich had compared Trump to the notoriously violent and at times unhinged Andrew Jackson (and by that, I mean he compared him in a positive way, glossing over Jackson’s many failings). From a historical perspective, that’s not really a comparison many candidates would appreciate (for reasons that we cover in our podcast on Jackson). Although, in Jackson’s case, he probably would have bothered with intermediaries and just done the killing himself.
American presidents have been assassinated for a variety of reasons: Lincoln was killed for political reasons; Garfield because Charles Guiteau (who was quite seriously mentally ill) believed he had should have been appointed Ambassador to France; McKinley was shot by Leon Czolgosz (an anarchist) for – again – political reasons; and John F. Kennedy was killed by little green men from outer space.
Plus, there have been unfulfilled threats to assassinate presidents right through the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries. Harry Truman came close to assassination by Puerto Rican pro-independence gunmen in the winter of 1950. In 1972 Arthur Bremer plotted to shoot Richard Nixon, but instead shot and paralysed George Wallace. John Hinckley got pretty close to killing Ronald Reagan in 1981. George W. Bush had a hand grenade thrown at him in Georgia (no, not the Peach State, the other one).
However, none of these threats or attempts were by the nominated candidate of a major political party during a presidential election. No matter what way the Trump campaign attempts to spin it, their man did make a veiled call for the killing of his opponent. Trump continues to remind us of darker days in American politics, while surprising us with something new.