Those of us who write about politics this year face a difficulty. Do we focus on the sensational things that come out of the mouth of Donald Trump or do we focus on his statements and proposals when he is trying to be serious but which are often just as zany?
Monday, when Trump delivered a speech outlining his economic views, we were told for the 10th time (or is it the 11th?) that Trump had turned the corner, that he was going to take his candidacy seriously, that he would stay on message and not embroil himself in the kind of counter-productive controversies that have dogged him in recent weeks and set his poll numbers heading south. By 2 p.m. Tuesday, he had suggested that "the Second Amendment people" opened one possibility for stopping Hillary Clinton from appointing the next members of the Supreme Court. Nothing like suggesting the political assassination of one's rival to demonstrate seriousness of purpose.
It would be easy to dismiss Trump's obscene Second Amendment suggestion as repulsive, and anyone who cares about democracy knows that assassinations are the worst moments. But, Trump might not have been suggesting someone take out Hillary, or not only Hillary. If you have seen the latest round of ads from the National Rifle Association, you know that they are not only promoting guns on the theory that they will keep you and your family safe, even though there are plenty of data that indicate the opposite effect on home safety. No, they have combined the safety meme with the freedom meme: "The NRA is Freedom's Safest Place." They do not spell out in a thirty-second spot exactly what they mean by freedom. My hunch is that it has little in common with the freedom of the children of God about which St. Paul wrote.
No, they are touching on the nuttiest of nutty conspiracy theories, the idea that government can threaten our individual freedoms and, in the last resort, an armed populace can take those freedoms back from the government by armed insurrection, that is to say, a revolution. Check out this essay posted at the NRA website, and the citations to Federalist 46 in which Madison discussed the dangers of a standing army but how the Second Amendment guaranteed such an army of 25,000 would be met by a militia of half a million:
To these [in the standing army] would be opposed a militia amounting to near half a million of citizens with arms in their hands, officered by men chosen from among themselves, fighting for their common liberties, and united and conducted by governments possessing their affections and confidence. It may well be doubted, whether a militia thus circumstanced could ever be conquered by such a proportion of regular troops. ... Besides the advantage of being armed, which the Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation, the existence of subordinate governments, to which the people are attached, and by which the militia officers are appointed, forms a barrier against the enterprises of ambition, more insurmountable than any which a simple government of any form can admit of. Notwithstanding the military establishments in the several kingdoms of Europe, which are carried as far as the public resources will bear, the governments are afraid to trust the people with arms.
Thus, Madison, still nursing the anti-Jacobite fear of a standing army. But, one can easily see how in the far right circles of today's political climate, especially among the white supremacy and extreme gun rights crowd, those words are incendiary. Think of the Bundy family and their standoffs with the federal government. Those Gadsen flags you see at NRA events and Tea Party rallies are not merely statements of historical memory!
So, we are left wondering whether Trump was suggesting the assassination of Mrs. Clinton (or perhaps of her Supreme Court nominees, it was unclear which he intended), what GOP Senate candidate and Tea Party favorite Sharron Angle once called a "Second Amendment remedy," or if he was suggesting that should a President Clinton, as proscribed by the Constitution, nominate candidates for the Supreme Court, Trump and his followers should mount a revolution? The casualness with which he made the remark leads me to believe he did not intend a revolution: Such things take time and planning. But, hey, who knows what he meant because he is crazy. That said, let us not excuse the evil he is perpetrating by dismissing it as crazy. One can be both.
The ensuing turmoil -- how many Republican Senators or Members of Congress will announce they are not supporting him now? -- could keep us from realizing how outrageous his so-called serious speech on economics the day before really was. That was the implicit contrast in the immediate commentary, that Trump had stepped on his serious speech by saying these offhand remarks about the Second Amendment people. But, his Monday speech on economics read like it had been assembled in the middle of the night by high school sophomores using Wikipedia.
Take, for example, his plan to simplify the tax code. The centerpiece of his proposal is to create three tax brackets instead of the current seven. But, the existence of the seven brackets is not why the tax code is overly complex. You figure out your taxable income, and you go to the charts in the back and -- voila -- there is what you pay. The complexity that is problematic and distorting is found amidst the calculations of one's taxable income.
Or, take Trump's pledge to rebuild our roads and bridges and airports. I am totally on board with infrastructure spending. We used to build great works of architecture, like Grand Central Station, to serve as the terminus of a first-rate train system. JFK airport was a model of a modern transportation hub in the 1960s. Now, our rail system is unsafe and inadequate, some of our airports have been revamped for security reasons but they often do not present an intermodal face for other types of transit, and as many roads are filled with potholes as not. But, how is he going to pay for all this seeing as he had just listed a ton of tax cuts, including the most egregious one, the pledge to eliminate the estate tax, which is good for the Trump kids but irrelevant to the 99.8 percent of the population that does not pay estate taxes.
I understand that advocating assassination or revolution is almost uniquely irresponsible. But, let's not stipulate that Trump's attempts at responsibility are serious when they aren't. Last evening, people were right to be condemning his casual suggestion that violence might be preferable to democracy. But, Monday evening, there should have been more skepticism about the economic violence he wants to perpetrate on the country too. Trump is to unseriousness what Baskin-Robbins is to ice cream: 64 flavors and counting.
[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]