Mass shootings and other atrocities still afflict the country. But before Trump ran for office, that kind of violence usually emerged from the most troubled, most isolated people in society. Many killers found their inspiration online, at the extremes—not from anybody competing seriously for the top jobs in U.S. politics.
Politicians who ran as outsiders took extra care to distance themselves from anyone or anything implicated in violence. Ross Perot had no truck with that kind of extremism when he ran for president in 1992 and 1996. He may have held some cranky ideas, but his political behavior was straight-arrow. Anti-Iraq war groups hurled themselves into door-knocking, get-out-the-vote drives, and online fundraising and advertising—nothing like the turbulence of the anti-Vietnam protests of the 1960s.
In 2008, Barack Obama faced intense scrutiny as a presidential candidate over his acquaintance with Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, who had been leaders of the domestic terrorist group Weather Underground in the 1960s. They had detonated bombs. The Weathermen never succeeded in hurting anyone outside their own organization—three members of whom were killed by accident—but that record was due more to good luck than good intentions. At one of the debates between Obama and Hillary Clinton that year, the moderator, George Stephanopoulos, pressed Obama to explain how he could have served for three years with Ayers on the board of an educational foundation and done a campaign event in the Ayers-Dohrn living room. Obama answered,
This is a guy who lives in my neighborhood, who’s a professor of English in Chicago who I know and who I have not received some official endorsement from. He’s not somebody who I exchange ideas from on a regular basis. And the notion that somehow, as a consequence of me knowing somebody who engaged in detestable acts 40 years ago, when I was 8 years old, somehow reflects on me and my values doesn’t make much sense, George.
Yet that was not enough for some. First Clinton, then the Republican nominee John McCain, questioned Obama’s judgment and character. McCain’s running mate, Sarah Palin, accused Obama of “palling around with terrorists.” That charge was exaggerated to absurdity. But it was founded on a recognition that palling around with terrorists would be a bad thing for a president to do, if true. (The final word on its untruth was spoken by Ayers himself in 2013. “Obama’s not a radical. I wish he were, but he’s not.”)
A dozen years later, Trump draws support not from people with violent pasts, but from people with violent presents. He thanks and praises them. More than any politician since the days of Lester Maddox and Orville Faubus, Trump made violence integral to his political appeal from the beginning to the end of his presidential career. This is truly a change in American life—and possibly a change that will be hard to undo.