Trump and the anxiety of assassination

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.

TrumpPolls 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.

Oswald in New Orleans
Oswald in New Orleans, August 16, 1963

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.

Reagan’s would-be assassin will go free; RFK’s convicted assassin will not.

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.


7 thoughts on “Trump and the anxiety of assassination”

  1. “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.”

    You are correct that there is anxiety out there. Describing the JFK murder as a “searing trauma” is colorful and dramatic, but was it a searing trauma for the country at large or you (JM)? (or something in between).

    Just last month, 5 Dallas Police Officers were murdered by a racist sniper, associated with the Black Lives Matter movement, whose name (Micha Johnson) is barely known or remembered. No doubt a searing trauma for the police community and their families, but already subsumed by trivial events in the Presidential election, magnified by media bullhorns. People have moved on.

    I’m glad you noted the other assassination attempts on Wallace, Ford, Reagan. Even before 11/22, there were assasnation attempts on Truman and FDR (where Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak was shot and killed) and successful attempts on McKinley and Garfield. And, of course, the mother of all murderous political conspiracies was effected against Lincoln, by Booth and his Southern confederates, after they lost the Civil War.

    My point? JFK’s murder fascinates you, JM, and intrigues us, but I’m pretty sure it’s not seared onto the minds of 99% of the 320 million Americans in the country. Talk to anyone who remembers that fateful day of 11/23/63. Yes, they were shocked, but they got over it quickly. The romantic mythology of this historical event has captured the host and his guests here, but that’s only a tiny slice of the culture and our country.

    1. I find it strange that anyone could argue that JFK’s assassination did not deeply affect the country, or that it was not traumatic to live through, or that everybody “got over it quickly.” I have talked to many people who lived through the experience of the assassination, and all of them say that it affected the country profoundly. Larry Sabato commissioned some public polls for his book “The Kennedy Half-Century,” and found that 91 percent of the respondents said that JFK’s murder changed the country “a great deal.” I’ve seen a lot of polls, and I can’t think of many where 91 percent of Americans managed to agree on anything.

    2. “They got over it quickly”? Not hardly. If 60 – 80 % of US residents still don’t believe the official story, depending on who you believe, they are still interested in the Truth. If it may ever be told.

  2. Hillary Clinton referenced the assassination of RFK to justify her staying in the race against Obama in 2008, implying Obama might be assassinated and then she would be the nominee. The comments from Hillary in 2008 and Trump today are both reprehensible in my eyes.

    1. 10 minutes of Keith Olberman?
      Watch, listen and understand why he was fired by MSNBC.
      This man is insufferable.

  3. The conundrum of studying the JFK assassination is in the confrontation of an unpleasant truth: it is entirely possible that the assassination was a planned extra-legal action to depose a sitting President.
    If this, indeed, happened, then one must consider: What is different in the 21st Century USA? Could it happen again, if a President was ‘perceived’ as a threat to US interests by, the difficult to prove, ‘deep state’. It is sobering, keeping the above in mind, when one listens to ex CIA & NSA Directors, Admirals, Generals,& Security apparatchiks, describe a candidate, in short, as a ‘clear & present danger. (One can only speculate: Would action be considered, theoretically, or not. Would public opinion, approve or disapprove.) It is again sobering to compare these times to past times and note some inescapable ‘environmental similarities. The study & lessons of history do not occur in a vacuum.

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