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Trump's 2024 litmus test is worse than cruelty

MSNBC 1/29/2023 Charlie Sykes
Former President Donald Trump arrives at his Mar-a-Lago home to announce his 2024 presidential campaign in Palm Beach, Fla., on Nov. 15, 2022. © Provided by MSNBC Former President Donald Trump arrives at his Mar-a-Lago home to announce his 2024 presidential campaign in Palm Beach, Fla., on Nov. 15, 2022.

In 2018, as President Donald Trump was separating children from their parents and mocking victims of sexual assault, The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer wrote, “The Cruelty is the Point.”

“We can hear the spectacle of cruel laughter throughout the Trump era,” he wrote.

But cruelty is no longer enough. As he seeks a return to power in 2024, Trump has already pivoted to brutality, and there is nothing subtle about it.

For Trump, this is hardly a new theme. His enthusiasm for violence — including torture, extra-judicial murder and shooting both migrants and protesters — has been a consistent feature of his politics for years.

As Serwer noted, Trump has long cultivated cruelty as a political weapon. But he has not confined his cruelty to mere rhetoric. Indeed, the “pro-life” former president makes no secret of his passion for actual violence — including the maiming, wounding, flesh-tearing, shooting and killing of human beings.

And this appetite for brutality will soon become a litmus test for right-wing politicians, including any of his GOP challengers.

Speaking to supporters at Mar-a-Lago in November, Trump threatened that, as president, he would send the military into American cities, even if local officials objected, and repeatedly stressed his eagerness for executing drug dealers and human traffickers after quick, summary trials.

Trump set up his pronouncement with feigned reluctance. “I don’t like to say this,” he protested. But obviously he loves it, repeating his proposals to kill drug dealers several times during the announcement.

“I don’t even know if the American public is ready for it. A lot of my people say, ‘Please don’t say that, sir. That’s not nice.’”


But Trump is not about nice. So during his announcement he recounted a conversation he claimed that he had with President Xi Jinping of China, when the Chinese strongman explained why his country had no drug problem: drug dealer trials that took two hours and ended in execution.

“By the end of the day you’re executed,” he related to an enthusiastic audience.

Trump is himself so enthusiastic about the executions that he put his own gruesome (and probably ahistorical) twist on the story.

“I don’t know if anybody wants to know this or if it’s too graphic,” he said, “but the bullet is sent to their families. You know that, right? Sent to their families. It’s pretty tough stuff. No games. So they have no drug problem whatsoever.”

Trump especially loves stories about bloody bullets.

Back in 2016, he explained his support for waterboarding and other forms of torture by telling a (bogus) story about how U.S. Gen. John J. Pershing executed dozens of alleged Muslim terrorists in the Philippines with bullets dipped in pigs’ blood. Once again, he pretended to tell the story only reluctantly.

“You know, I read a story — it’s a terrible story, but I’ll tell you,” Trump said. “Should I tell you? Or should I not?”

But he told the fake story frequently, and tweeted about it. “Study what General Pershing of the United States did to terrorists when caught,” Trump tweeted. “There was no more Radical Islamic Terror for 35 years!”

Trump also praised the extra-judicial murders endorsed by former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, whom he congratulated for doing “an unbelievable job on the drug problem.” The State Department’s 2016 Human Rights Report estimated that police and vigilantes had killed more than 6,000 suspected drug dealers in the months since Duterte came to power.

Nor is his zeal for the death penalty relegated to other countries. As Rolling Stone reported this week, the Trump administration rushed to “execute every prisoner he could” in its last months in office.

As president, Trump not only wanted a border wall but frequently talked about having it electrified, with sharpened spikes on top, and had aides draw up cost estimates for moats filled with alligators and snakes. He publicly suggested that soldiers shoot immigrants who threw rocks, and, when told that would be illegal, “suggested that they shoot migrants in the legs to slow them down.” During his first campaign, he urged supporters to beat up hecklers and boasted that he could order the military to commit war crimes, including killing the families of suspected terrorists. “If you were president of United States, and the military declined to carry out an illegal order, what would you do?,” Fox News host Bret Baier asked him. “They won’t refuse,” he replied.

Relevant to the police brutality protests rippling out in the wake of Tyre Nichols’ death, Trump has encouraged police to stop worrying about physically injuring suspects during arrests. As unrest spiked after the police murder of George Floyd, Trump tweeted that he had told Minnesota’s governor that “the Military is with him all the way.”

“Any difficulty and we will assume control,” Trump wrote, “but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”


Trump loves a raw force. And now, in his new campaign, he’s going to double down, daring his challengers to match his willingness to crush and kill opponents, protesters, or criminals.

His strategy is already having an effect. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has established his own cruelty cred by shipping migrants off to Martha’s Vineyard. For now, he seems determined not be outflanked by Trump on the right.

Last week, DeSantis called for changes to the law to make it easier for juries to recommend the death penalty by eliminating the requirement that jurors have to be unanimous.

He hasn’t said yet whether he favors Trump’s proposal for quick summary trials for drug dealers or whether he endorses same-day executions.

But don’t be surprised if he does. Because in this GOP brutality, increasingly, is the point.

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