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The GOP’s Death Wishes
MAGA Republicans have normalized mortal threats while expanding opportunities for actual killing.
THE OTHER DAY, THE FORMER PRESIDENT of the United States and current frontrunner for the Republican nomination for that job in the 2024 election surprised a grand total of nobody by suggesting that Army Gen. Mark Milley, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, should be killed.
“This guy turned out to be a Woke train wreck who, if the Fake News reporting is correct, was actually dealing with China to give them a heads up on the thinking of the President of the United States,” Donald Trump spewed on Truth Social on the evening of September 22. “This is an act so egregious that, in times gone by, the punishment would have been DEATH!”
Trump’s death wish toward Milley, a man a thousand times more honorable than he is (a million times, if you employ Trump’s accounting methods), was pretty much taken in stride. Calling for the nation’s then–top military commander, who retired over the weekend, to be executed for treason was just Trump being Trump.
The nation’s major broadcast networks, noted Media Matters, “largely ignored” Trump’s murderous September 22 post, with only CNN and MSNBC deeming it worthy of mention. The press watchdog tracked that, through September 26, not a word was breathed on this subject on Good Morning America, World News Tonight, and This Week (ABC); Mornings, Evening News, and Face the Nation (CBS); and Today, Nightly News, and Meet the Press (NBC).
This was before Milley responded on September 27, saying he had taken “appropriate measures” to protect his family, and before President Joe Biden addressed this issue on September 28, calling the silence of Republicans over Trump’s death threat “deafening.”
But, why, really, should there be a fuss about it? Trump says stuff like this all the time. He’s wished death on people before—the Central Park Five come to mind. In 2017, he invited to the White House a New Hampshire state representative, Al Baldasaro, who once said that Hillary Clinton should be “shot for treason.”
In February 2022, Trump called for the execution of some of Clinton’s aides over fabricated claims that they tried to hack some servers at Trump Towers during the 2016 campaign, saying “In a stronger period of time in our country, this crime would have been punishable by death.” (Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio deemed this a grand idea, saying, “President Trump’s statement yesterday I think is right on target.”)
Trump, more recently, has championed the death penalty for drug dealers, as if drugs aren’t already claiming enough lives. One of his MAGA supporters, Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona, has introduced legislation, the “Death Penalty for Dealing Fentanyl Act,” to allow the execution of anyone convicted of selling or distributing this dangerous narcotic, if it resulted in a person’s death. What better way to affirm the sanctity of life?
And let’s not forget that, as president, Trump gleefully launched a killing spree of federal death row inmates, racking up more than thirteen executions in the final six months of his time in office, making him, by the BBC’s reckoning, “the country’s most prolific execution president in more than a century.” Congratulations?
Of course, not every transgression deserves execution, even in Trump’s cosmology. That’s why Trump affirmed, in late August, that if he again wins the presidency, he will also use the powers of his office to imprison his political opponents. Trump was asked by Glenn Beck, “Do you regret not locking [Hillary Clinton] up? And if you’re president again, will you lock people up?” Trump responded in the affirmative, saying “the answer is you have no choice, because they’re doing it to us.”
What could be fairer or more equitable than that?
TRUMP’S DECLARATION THAT GEN. MILLEY deserves to die was immediately seconded by Rep. Gosar, who wrote in his newsletter to constituents:
In a better society, quislings like the strange sodomy-promoting General Milley would be [hanged]. He had one boss: President Trump, and instead he was secretly meeting with Pelosi and coordinating with her to hurt Trump. That is, when he wasn’t also secretly coordinating and sharing intelligence with the Chinese military. How this traitor remains in office is a question we need answered.
In fact, bloodlust among MAGA Republicans is as common as farts at a beer and cheese festival. Take Marjorie Taylor Greene. The Georgia representative has repeatedly called for the murder of members of the Democratic party.
In 2018, when a poster on her Facebook page asked, with regard to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, “Now do we get to hang them ??” Greene replied: “Stage is being set. Players are being put in place. We must be patient. This must be done perfectly or liberal judges would let them off.”
In January 2019, Greene liked a Facebook comment that said “a bullet to the head would be quicker” to remove House Speaker Nancy Pelosi from her tyrannical reign. In a since-removed video on Facebook that same year, Greene called Pelosi “a traitor to our country” and pronounced her “guilty of treason.” She added, “And it’s, uh, it’s a crime punishable by death is what treason is.” Thanks for the history lesson.
Greene has also mused about executing FBI agents who were part of the imagined “deep state” working against Trump, at one point liking a comment that said “These Traitors need to be put to death as an example of what will no longer be tolerated in our country!!!” (Note that none of these calls for executions comes with even a nod to the due process protections now being afforded Trump in his multiple prosecutions.)
In August, at a listening session in her district, Greene got a good chuckle out of the idea that her political rivals ought to be terminated. When an audience member declared, “Our country, our Constitution has been stomped on repeatedly,” for which “people have got to be tried for treason,” another audience member chirped “and death penalty.” This made Greene “roar with laughter,” according to the Independent. “I think we’re ending on the right note,” she said.
Trump, for his part, also thinks political violence is funny, last Friday joking about the brutal hammer attack on Paul Pelosi, the former speaker’s husband. “We’ll stand up to crazy Nancy Pelosi, who ruined San Francisco. How’s her husband doing, by the way, anybody know?” Trump said at a California GOP convention. Audience members laughed. How, really, could they not have?
More laughter and wild cheers greeted the former president’s call at the same event for the execution of shoplifters: “Very simply, if you rob a store, you can fully expect to be shot as you are leaving that store!”
The crowd broke into a chant: “TRUMP! TRUMP! TRUMP! TRUMP! TRUMP!” It went on like that.
NONE OF THE SEVEN CANDIDATES who took the stage at last Wednesday’s Republican primary debate said a word about Trump’s deranged talk about whacking Milley, even though the general had, as noted above, weighed in on the topic that very day. But former Vice President Mike Pence, referring to Trump as “my former running mate,” did put in a good word for putting people to death.
This is what Pence had to say, in response to a question he was not asked:
Look, I’m someone who believes that justice delayed is justice denied. And as a father of three, as a grandfather of three beautiful little girls, I am sick and tired of these mass shootings happening in the United States of America, and if I’m president of the United States, I am going to go to the Congress of the United States, and we’re going to pass a federal expedited death penalty for anyone involved in a mass shooting, so that they will meet their fate in months, not years. It is unconscionable that the Parkland shooter, Ron, is actually going to spend the rest of his life behind bars in Florida. That’s not justice. We have to mete out justice and send a message to these would-be killers that you are not going to live out your days behind bars. You’re going to meet justice in this system.
Moderator Dana Perino of Fox News replied, in reference to the question she actually asked, “Does that mean Obamacare is here to stay?”
Pence’s reference to “Ron” above might look confusing in the transcript. In the moment, he was making an aside to Ron DeSantis, who was standing on the stage with him; he was not identifying him as the Parkland shooter but as governor of the state that committed the unconscionable offense of allowing the shooter to live. Beyond that, Pence’s pledge says more about his will to kill than his determination to end gun violence.
For one thing, it’s doubtful how effective the death penalty would be as a deterrent to mass shootings. A database created in 2012 by Mother Jones found back then that a majority of mass shooters (36 out of 62, or 58 percent) ended up killing themselves. Mark Follman, the magazine’s national affairs editor and author of the 2022 book Trigger Points, says in an email, “Our database has more than doubled since then. The majority of these cases are suicidal mass murders.”
Pence’s solution is also notable for the sheer vastness of its potential lethality. According to the Gun Violence Archive, there have been 529 mass shootings—which it defines as an incident in which four or more people are killed or injured, not including the shooter—so far this year, through Monday evening. A President Pence, if he delivered on this promise to respond to mass shootings with mass executions, would break his former running mate’s modern-day record in no time at all.
DeSantis, meanwhile, seems to be channeling his inner Trump in his own zeal to hike executions in his state. According to USA Today, the Florida governor has been “ramping up the state’s speed on capital punishment ahead of the 2024 election,” logging five executions in just six months. DeSantis has also signed bills to allow the state to seek the death penalty in cases of sexual battery involving children under 12, which became law on October 1, as well as a bill to allow capital punishment even when there is not a unanimous jury decision. (It was a lack of unanimity in the jury decision that prevented the death penalty from being imposed in the Parkland case.)
A spokesperson for DeSantis told the paper via email that executions were on the rise because “COVID-19 and state emergencies (like hurricanes) can delay the death warrant process, but that process has resumed.” Others speculated that it had something to do with politics. Here’s how Maria DeLiberato, executive director for the group Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, put it: “The restarting of these executions seems to indicate—in large part because of his bid for president to appear tough on crime—he wants Florida to fall in line and be a law-and-order state.”
Threatening to kill people—and actually doing so—may in our present moment be good politics. It helps clarify who exactly is in charge. That it also coarsens our national discourse and results in the normalization of violence as a means to political ends is something Republicans are willing, even happy, to live with.