After more than a year of insults, bombast and outlandish statements, Donald Trump still has the ability to shock.
His comments on Tuesday — in which he seemed to suggest his supporters should either shoot Hillary Clinton or her Supreme Court nominees or rebel against the government — were a reminder that there are lines Trump can still cross, and represented a dangerous departure from the norms of American politics.
The comments were particularly troubling on two levels. First, Trump went beyond committing mere rhetorical malpractice and waded into the territory of encouraging physical violence against his political opponent, which can lead to tragic yet predictable real-world consequences. Beyond that, Trump's trampling of the norms of political discourse sets a dangerous precedent that can be exploited by Trump-like figures in the future.
A call to arms: There is very recent precedent for political rhetoric inciting actual violence. In June, Jo Cox, a member of the British Parliament, was stabbed and shot to death by a suspect who reportedly yelled "Britain first!" as he unleashed his assault. Cox's death, which occurred just prior to the divisive Brexit vote to leave the European Union, sent a shockwave through British politics and led to introspection about the rhetoric surrounding the Brexit vote.
Whether Trump actually meant to signal to supporters that they should take up arms against Clinton herself or her future administration is almost secondary. The Trump campaign furiously pushed back against that notion in the ensuing firestorm, and the candidate himself denied that was his intention later Tuesday.
But in politics, it doesn't just matter what you say — it matters what people hear. And nearly everyone who watched Trump's comments Tuesday concluded he was insinuating Clinton should be shot. Trump supporters on the alt-right certainly took his comments at face value. It does not require an enormous leap to posit that someone could now feel emboldened to make an attempt on Clinton's life, particularly given the vicious behavior of some of his supporters at his own rallies.
Beyond Trump: On a larger level, Trump's remarks are the latest in a series of incendiary statements that will leave a mark long beyond November.
Politics is governed not just by laws and party rules but also by norms — unspoken agreements that dictate what is and is not acceptable in political discourse. For instance, presidential candidates don't typically criticize the families of dead soldiers. Or insinuate that their opponents should be shot. Or accuse the government of rigging the election three months before anyone has even voted.
When these rules break down, the boundaries of what's acceptable are redrawn in ways that can't be foreseen. Trump's campaign has been a veritable Treaty of Versailles, slashing and resetting the borders of what's allowed in presidential politics.
This is a feature, not a bug. His supporters love him for bucking the system and not playing by the rules, some of which are admittedly outdated or counterproductive.
But the redrawing of these boundaries means that a politician in the Trump mold could very likely emerge in the future and play by these rules much more deftly than Trump has managed to. This reset also means that far less incendiary figures will have free reign to say appalling things that previously would have been out of bounds.
Trump may very well lose the election, but Trumpism will live on. And Trump's continued shattering of political norms means a Trump 2.0 will have much wider latitude to push those boundaries even further.
When it becomes acceptable to suggest shooting an opponent, it soon becomes acceptable to do much worse. The solution is not to let it become acceptable in the first place.