Trump’s intensifying rhetoric offers insight into how he might govern again as president

Over the past two weeks, Donald Trump said shoplifters should be immediately shot, suggested the United States’ top general be executed and mocked a political opponent’s husband who was beaten with a hammer.

The former president and current front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination also in recent weeks encouraged the impeachment of Democratic President Joe Biden because the “lowlifes Impeached me TWICE,” urged his party to shut down the U.S. government with the hope it would stall some of the criminal cases he faces, and said that, if elected to the White House again, he would threaten NBC News and MSNBC’s access to the airwaves over news coverage of him that he called “Country Threatening Treason.”

From his earliest days in public life as a New York real estate tycoon, Trump has favored language that makes him appear tough and scrappy, particularly when it comes to crime and retribution for his perceived enemies. But the rhetorical escalation on display in recent weeks is notable for its parallels to the hardline approaches that are hallmarks of authoritarian regimes that he has occasionally praised, such as the rule of Russian President Vladimir Putin or North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un.

“Violence is his political project now,” said Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a historian at New York University. “It is the thing, besides his own victimhood, that he brings up the most.”

Author of a book called “Strongmen,” Ben-Ghiat contends that Trump fits well in the category. His recent statements on shooting shoplifters, for example, call to mind strongman leaders he has previously praised such as former Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, whose war on drugs featured “extrajudicial killings” of thousands of suspects without a trial, or other countries where military leaders disappear after falling out of favor with the regime.

Trump already has a nearly decade-long record of making inflammatory, violent statements, often without follow-through.

He has mulled shooting illegal border crossers in the legs and offered to pay the legal fees of people who roughed up protesters that disrupted his 2016 campaign rallies.

Trump’s words also can rile up his supporters and have direct consequences, most glaringly in the case of Jan. 6, 2021, when his lies about his 2020 election loss revved up a mass of supporters who attacked the U.S. Capitol in a failed effort to prevent Congress from certifying Biden’s presidential victory.

They can also rile up Trump’s own party, which then incorporates the former president’s vendettas and impulses into its own agenda.

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Following Trump’s complaints of political persecution by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Republicans have now called for dissolving the law enforcement agency and the GOP-controlled House has launched a committee investigating the “weaponization” of the federal government.

After Trump mulled bombing drug labs in Mexico, his rivals for the Republican nomination have pushed increasingly aggressive proposals for using the military to attack cartels in the U.S.’ southern neighbor, which would be the sort of unilateral use of force on foreign soil that Trump has railed against.

The violence and vengeance in Trump’s remarks has ratcheted up in recent weeks as his lead in the Republican primary has seemed to solidify and his legal peril in four criminal cases, as well as a fraud case threatening his businesses, has intensified.

The remarks have also alarmed the legal system.

On Tuesday, a New York judge overseeing the former president’s civil fraud trial issued a gag order barring Trump from talking about his staff, after the former president posted a picture of the judge’s clerk on his social media network, Truth Social.

Last month, federal prosecutor Jack Smith asked for a gag order in his criminal case against Trump over his attempt to overturn the 2020 election results, citing Trump’s stream of inflammatory remarks about prosecutors, the judge in that case, and even his recent suggestion that Mark Milley, the retiring chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had committed treason and should be executed.

The comment was a reference to phone calls Milley made to his counterpart in China toward the end of Trump’s term, including after the Jan. 6 Capitol attack, that were meant to give “reassurance” to the U.S.’s chief adversary.

Trump described the calls as a “treasonous act” for which “in times gone by, the punishment would have been DEATH!” In an interview with “60 Minutes,” Milley said he had taken precautions to protect himself and his family after Trump’s social media post.

Though most in his party have stayed quiet, Trump’s comments about Milley horrified some Republicans. His former vice president, Mike Pence, on Tuesday called them “utterly unacceptable” at a national security and foreign policy event at Washington’s Georgetown University co-hosted by The Associated Press.

Trump’s former White House chief of staff, John Kelly, released a statement to CNN on Tuesday that also bemoaned his former boss’ attack on Milley. It also included a long list of behaviors that Kelly, a retired Marine Corps general, said demonstrated that Trump “has nothing but contempt for our democratic institutions, our Constitution, and the rule of law.”

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Trump campaign spokesman Steven Cheung did not respond to a request for comment about the former president’s language.

On the debate stage last week, Trump’s rivals for the GOP nomination didn’t address the former president’s more incendiary rhetoric. They instead focused their relatively infrequent criticism of Trump on his decision to skip the debate, how he added to the national debt while running the country and his comments on abortion.

Democrats, including Biden, have warned that Trump and supporters in his Make America Great Again movement are a threat to American democracy. In a speech the day after the debate, Biden declared of Republicans that “the silence is deafening.”

“I think there’s a feeling that you don’t want to insult his voters and that his words don’t matter,” Alex Conant, a Republican strategist, said of how gingerly Trump’s rivals step around his violent rhetoric. “But if you only criticize him on the margins, you’re not going to convince anybody to switch their vote.”

Indeed, some of Trump’s rivals have even tried to mimic his more violent rhetoric, such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis vowing to “start slitting throats” of federal bureaucrats once elected.

Conant said that “part of Trump’s schtick is that he says things nobody else will,” and while it may offend people and cost him with independent voters, his supporters see it as a sign of authenticity and love that about him.

“Nothing he says has ever really cost him with his own base,” he said.

At last week’s California Republican Party convention in a hotel ballroom in Anaheim, Trump’s rhetoric reached yet another level. In a heavily Democratic state where the GOP’s faithful have had little to cheer, the former president’s arrival sparked a celebration, with attendees in red, white and blue Trump gear forming a conga line before the former president’s speech began.

Trump joked about a hammer attack that left Paul Pelosi, the 80-year-old husband of former Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, with a fractured skull after a man who touted conservative conspiracy theories broke into their house last year.

“We’ll stand up to crazy Nancy Pelosi, who ruined San Francisco — how’s her husband doing, anybody know?” Trump said as the crowd laughed loudly and cheered.

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Associated Press writers Jonathan J. Cooper and Michael R. Blood in Anaheim, California, contributed to this report.