Donald Trump’s “concession” statement after the Tuesday, April 5, 2016, Wisconsin primary was more than just mean-spirited, unsportsmanlike, and ungentlemanly. It was dangerous.
I’m reading a very compelling book that I strongly recommend to anyone who is interested in presidential elections or in the life and achievement of Theodore Roosevelt. It’s called Theodore Roosevelt and the Assassin: Madness, Vengeance, and the Campaign of 1912, by Gerard Helferich. Mr. Helferich, by the way, will be giving a talk at the eleventh annual Theodore Roosevelt public humanities symposium in Dickinson, ND, on September 30, 2016.
Theodore Roosevelt and the Assassin is an account of saloon keeper John Schrank’s attempt to assassinate former President Roosevelt on October 14, 1912, in Milwaukee. Schrank objected to TR’s quest for a third term. He had served from 1901-1908, and then ran again in 1912. Schrank had had a dream in 1901 in which former President William McKinley, who had been assassinated in September 1901, appeared at his bed and demanded that Schrank avenge his murder by the usurper Theodore Roosevelt. Schrank stalked TR for weeks in the south and midwest before he finally found the opportunity to shoot the former President outside the Gilpatrick Hotel in Milwaukee.
TR famously said “he pinked me!,” insisted upon going to the auditorium to deliver his planned speech, for 84 minutes!, before going to the hospital to have the serious, but not life-threatening wound attended to.
On page 53, Helferich makes a very astute observation. “There seemed to be something about this bitter, superheated campaign that could incite seemingly rational citizens to desert their senses.” – Even before the assassination attempt in mid-October, TR had been heckled, mobbed, his clothing torn; individuals had tried to rush the stage at several of his public rallies. The vitriol of the 1912 campaign, with TR challenging his hand-picked successor William Howard Taft for the Republican nomination; the myriad insults hurled back and forth between TR and Taft (mostly by TR), the debacle of the Republican National Convention in Chicago, TR’s over-heated rhetoric about standing at Armageddon and battling for the Lord, the newspaper (media) ecstasy in pitting four great men against each other (TR, Taft, Woodrow Wilson, and the Socialist Eugene Debs), and the pervasive sense that this was not a contest for the Presidency but a raw struggle for the very future of American civilization–all this created the petri dish for anarchy, energies that “could incite seemingly rational citizens to desert their senses.”
After Schrank was declared insane by a Milwaukee court, Roosevelt wrote: “I have not the slightest feeling against him; I have a very strong feeling against the people who, by their ceaseless and intemperate abuse, excited him to the action. . . .” This is precisely the right response. In other words, there are no pure “lone gunmen.” A gunman like Schrank is created and encouraged by reckless public rhetoric and public hate. It’s not impossible to posit a purely isolated act of violence, but almost all acts of violence are expressions of larger dynamics.
I have had a very uneasy feeling for the last month that we are going to see a serious outbreak of violence before the 2016 campaign is over. Trump (especially) and Ted Cruz (nearly as foolishly) have been stirring the electorate with un-civil rhetoric. Trump has gone so far as to predict (and slyly invite) riots at the Cincinnati convention if he is denied the nomination. I believe we are likely to see that much chaos–and more. The conditions are right for an assassination attempt.
If you care about American civil-ization I urge you to read Mr. Helferich’s 2013 book. TR survived the assassination attempt, thanks to his 50 page speech and steel spectacles case, and his indomitable spirit. It takes more than that to kill a bull moose, he famously quipped.
But in our benighted time, we are dealing with different ballistics and lesser men.