03/20/2016 11:01 pm ET Updated Mar 21, 2017

"I Wouldn't Lead It": Understanding Trump's Incitement to Violence


In the March 20th edition of the Wall Street Journal, political commentator Peggy Noonan reflects on Donald Trump's saying that if he were denied the nomination by some nit-picking rule (like the rule that you must win a majority of the delegates before you can claim victory), "I think you'd have riots" and "bad things would happen." Of course, he added, "I wouldn't lead it."

Noonan wonders if he knows what he's saying, if he knows that his statement comes across as a threat: "Nice little convention you have here, shame if someone put a match to it." Doesn't Trump understand, she asks, that "American politics is always potentially a powder keg?"

Of course he does. In an earlier post I analyzed Trump's rambling, episodic, anecdotal and sequentially incoherent speaking style as a twenty-first century instantiation of the mode of self-presentation celebrated long ago by Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), who boasted that he wrote without premeditation and just let one thought (and word) follow another in whatever order occurred to him. The idea was to achieve a spontaneity that says to the reader or listener: "here I am warts and all, a real person telling you what I think, not one of those confected public figures who hides behind a curtain of commonplace pieties; at least with me you know what you're getting."

Trump enacts the Montaigne-esque model perfectly, and in these latest statements he follows (probably accidentally) two other models -- one philosophical, the other literary. The philosophical model is provided by John Searle's analysis of what he calls "indirect speech acts." An indirect speech act is one that conveys more than its literal meaning. "Did you call my mother today?" is, on one level, a simple question and a request for information. But one can easily imagine the domestic situation in which the question is heard (indirectly) as a reminder of an obligation and as a potential rebuke. "You said you'd call my mother today and if you didn't I'll be really pissed off." Another example: you ask, "Do you really want to eat the sixth piece of pizza?," but you mean -- and are heard as meaning -- "You shouldn't eat that sixth piece of pizza; it will be bad for you."

So when Trump says, "I think you'd have riots," he can claim (and does claim) that he is merely making a prediction, but his target audiences -- his detractors and his supporters -- will hear the prediction as a threat and an invitation respectively. To the one group he is saying, "This is what will happen to you if you gang up against me; the party will be ruined." To the other group he is saying, "If they do this to me, you know what to do in response." The fact that he specifically disclaims these message by declaring "I wouldn't lead it" only calls attention to them. It is the "clean hands" gesture performed by someone whose hands are getting dirtier by the minute.

The literary model for this performance is provided by Mark Antony's funeral oration in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. Co-conspirators Cassius and Brutus have unwisely allowed Antony to address the Roman citizenry on the condition that he not stir the people up. Antony follows his instructions to the letter, declaring that he has come only to bury Caesar, not to praise him in terms that would provoke outrage against those who have killed him. He says that he has no wish to refute the arguments presented by Brutus moments earlier -- "I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke." He says again and again that the killers are "honorable men," but with each repetition the compliment -- surrounded as it is by a rehearsal of Caesar's acts of generosity toward the people -- rings more hollow. He characterizes himself as without eloquence and imagines what he would be able to say were he as eloquent as Brutus. "Were I Brutus" then I might speak in such a way as to "move/ The stones of Rome to rise and mutiny." But I'm not Brutus and I'm not counseling mutiny (that is, riots). And no sooner has he uttered this disclaimer than the citizens cry in unison, "We'll mutiny," and go off to find, and kill, the conspirators: "Let not a traitor live." Watching the result of his words, Antony crows, "Mischief thou art afoot." It is a mischief he has caused in the very act of denying any wish to do so.

That too is Trump's art and it has already had the predictable (and desired) effects. His detractors are afraid, and his supporters are already beating people up and looking forward, no doubt, to a glorious near-future when they can punch more people in the face in obedience to the glorious leader who has given them their marching orders while pretending to be doing nothing of the kind. It's a great rhetorical move, one that he has perfected, and it's likely we will see it again.