Donald Trump’s comments about the 2nd Amendment and Hillary Clinton have unleashed the anxiety of assassination that always–always–courses beneath the surface of American political culture. This anxiety is the enduring result of the searing trauma of November 22, 1963 on generations of Americans. Before there was 9/11 there was 11//22.
Polls show that the murder of President Kennedy–a crime for which no one lost their liberty or even their job–disabused a majority of Americans of their faith in government. Confidence in the federal government peaked around 1964 when the Warren Commission offered up a poorly documented official theory that one man killed JFK for unknown reasons.
The Warren Commission was largely ignorant of the CIA’s close and sustained pre-assassination monitoring of Oswald. It knew nothing of the CIA’s AMLASH conspiracy to kill Castro which was in being advanced on November 22. The Commission was, in the words of one of its defenders, “naive to to say the least” about the CIA’s good faith. The Warren Commission’s report drew justified criticism and faith in Washington has never recovered.
The trauma of Dallas–and the government’s unconvincing account of the crime–was compounded by memories of the violent deaths of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy in 1968. Add those the wounding of Alabama Governor George Wallace in 1972; two assassination attempts on President Gerald Ford in 1975, and the wounding of President Reagan in 1981. With eight serious attempts in less than twenty years, political assassinations became part of our American heritage.
Yet our experience of assassination varies widely. For Americans born before 1960, political assassinations were a formative and traumatic experience whose results are constantly in the news. For Americans born since the 1980s, assassination known only a hand-me-down story, the stuff of a Stephen King miniseries and social media chitchat.
Yet assassination persists in the news.
Donald Trump used a photograph of Lee Oswald, JFK’s supposed assassin, to promote a fact-free conspiracy theory smearing the father of his rival, Senator Ted Cruz.
The plot against Trump
There was even an little-noticed attempt on Trump’s life. In June, Peter Sandford, a 20 year old British man, “had been planning to kill the candidate for a year, according to a criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Nevada.”
The Twitterverse, the blogosphere, and the punditocracy found no rhetorical or metaphorical truths in the story. So it was pretty much ignored, despite the fact that “Who tried to shoot Trump?” was the number one trending question on Google.
Some conservatives predictably complained about liberal bias but Trump himself did not. And the liberal Washington Post called attention to the story. As the Post’s Collum Borchers pointed out:
From Trump’s perspective, Sandford doesn’t fit neatly into his campaign narrative. The billionaire has positioned himself as a staunch defender of the Second Amendment, so he certainly won’t use the failed assassination attempt to push for gun control. Sandford is an illegal immigrant — and Trump is all about deporting illegal aliens — but the candidate’s focus is on building a wall to keep out Mexicans and barring foreign Muslims from entering the United States. A Briton who overstayed his visa isn’t a very good poster boy for the cause.
In other words, Trump found no utility in that particular assassination story. Nor did his many critics.
Hillary Clinton, by contrast, is glad to exploit Trump’s loose talk about the 2nd Amendment to conjure up the anxiety of assassination. She calls his comments, accurately enough, “the casual incitement of violence.”
Reagan’s daughter, Patti Davis, condemned Trump’s remarks.
In Dallas columnist Jim Schutze recalls the “climate of rage” in Dallas when President Kennedy was killed, though he makes the common but implausible argument that Oswald, a lefitst, was inspired by right-wing hatred of JFK.
If there’s one thing we know about American politics, it is that the anxiety of assassination does not go away.