During the Republican Party nomination process, Donald Trump infamously boasted that he could shoot somebody on New York’s Fifth Avenue and he wouldn’t lose any voters.
I was struck by shifting narratives over the past couple of days how that would play out. Imagine if Donald Trump did shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue?
The first thing you heard about it would be indistinct: “a shooting”, something about the President. Then footage from people’s phones would appear on Facebook and Twitter. There would be a kind of sick relief that the US President hadn’t been killed (with all the implications of civil conflict that carries) and a shocked realisation that he had actually shot somebody.
What happens next would be the comprehensible part. The exact events would be unclear and Trump’s motives would be unclear and the whole thing would feel unbelievable (naturally because it isn’t something likely to happen) but there wouldn’t be any moral doubt here. Clearly you can’t go around shooting people no matter who you are — least of all the President of the United States.
There would be a moment of bipartisan certainty and clarity. Trump would need to answer for what he had done. The circumstance would be surreal but the reaction would feel “normal” despite the unprecedented events.
There would be questions obviously. Some people would not unreasonably ask why the New York Police Department hadn’t immediately arrested Trump. Other would not unreasonably counter that obviously the Secret Service would have whisked him away — that’s their job regardless. It’s around this point you’d begin to see the start of strangeness that follows. “It’s unfair to attack the police.” Somebody notable will say and briefly there will be an argument about that. Nobody will yet know the exact sequence of events yet but there will be competing scenarios appearing.
“We musn’t rush to judgement” somebody will say. They mean “we musn’t rush to judge whether the police should have immediately arrested Trump” or “we musn’t rush to judge whether the Secret Service should have stopped Trump shooting somebody”. It’s not an unreasonable point but its the start of a narrative roller coaster which will cast people as falling into two groups: those who “rush to judgement” and those who don’t. That casting into two groups will itself have little basis in fact and will ironically be its own kind of rush to judgement.
It’s around about now that we first begin to learn about the victim. This part will be heartbreaking. They’ll be a person who had a life. Briefly that moral clarity will re-assert itself as people see that it is terrrible that a real person (made more real that they had a name) was shot. There will be more bipartisan calls that Trump answers for what he did. Somebody will point out again that the police didn’t arrest him, somebody will point out all the young black men shot by the police in the past year for far less cause. It’s a reasonable point — it is rhetorical, the implication isn’t that police should summarily execute people more consistently but that they shouldn’t do so at all. It will soon get twisted into something else. It will be called “mob justice”, even though Trump is safely in the Whitehouse under guard and there’s no actual danger of somebody from Twitter dragging him off to a kangaroo court. Supposedly wise heads will nod about “due process” even though there appears to zero danger of Trump being prosecuted too quickly. Indeed the clock is ticking for the NYPD to get forensic evidence from Trump.
A new story about the victim will suddenly appear and with it a strange set of questions. It might be a story about a crime they committed once or a leak that allegedly the police attending the scene found marijuana on them. People on Facebook will be asking why this person was even in such a dangerous neighbourhood, don’t people realise how easy it is to get shot in New York? If the victim is a child the extent to which they were nearly an adult will be exaggerated and/or people will ask why their parents let them wander about New York. If the victim is a woman, a photo from her Facebook page in which she is holding up a bottle of beer will circulate, or perhaps one where she is wearing something other than somber clothes. If the victim is a Muslim this will be underscored. If they are black, a photo intended to make them look menacing will circulate.
A section of the internet will claim that the victim is an actor. A picture of somebody who looks a bit like them will form part of a rambling account of places this ‘actor’ has appeared. Photos of somebody on an anti-Trump demonstration will be pointed at, circled in red. Is that them? “Funded by Soros” will appear on a page about the victim and by this point, you’ll be unsure if the alt-right conspiracy theorists are claiming that the victim was a Muslim, a Jew or an atheist.
You’ll point to the horror of this demonisation of the victim and wise heads in the centre and moderate right will say “Like we said. Don’t rush to judgement. Look at all this social media nonsense.” When they say it they’ll point to both the rabid conspiracy theory about paid actors and that one tweet where somebody raised the issue of police shootings as if to say the two are equivalent.
“We don’t know what REALLY happened.” Says a wise head on the 24 Hour rolling coverage. That’s sort of true. Obviously you don’t. “Who knows what was going through his head?” The wise head says. “Nothing good” you think but you are distracted because the cable news channel you are watching needs to fill this rolling news coverage with something. All they have is past coverage about previous presidential shootings I.e. footage of past assassination attempts. Footage of Dealey Plaza and the Washington Hilton is on rotation because that’s all they have. There isn’t footage of past Presidents trying to shoot people. It’s not even an intentional attempt by the media to cast the president as a victim, it’s just one of those consequences of news coverage when people are hungry to know what has happened but there is nothing actually to report. Journalists and news anchors stand forlornly in “Live” feeds from outside the Whitehouse or from Fifth Avenue as if magically the events might repeat themselves.
“He felt threatened,” a spokesperson will say. Probably Giuliani. “His children are being very strong at this terrible time.” Says Sarah Sanders. “I can’t imagine what they are going through,” says a man with impeccable hair on the couch of Fox and Friends. Sympathetic coverage of Melania Trump will be rolling out on sympathetic media. “What about the victim’s family!” You’ll shout at the TV but the victims family have asked for privacy. They have no PR firm, no media contacts and the police have told them to say nothing. A cousin of the victim will be broadcast screaming in anger about what Trump did. He will look angry and unreasonable because he is upset and frustrated — who wouldn’t be? But a wise head will once again remind people “not to rush to judgement”.
“A man has a right to defend himself.” You will be told. There is more footage now. Leaked video from security cameras. It is circulated on social media before you see shorter versions of it on the news. In truth, it tells you nothing you didn’t already know. CNN shows 3 minutes of the leaked video. “Why,” asks a viral Facebook post “did CNN edit out 1 minute of this crucial footage? What are the lying media hiding?” You’ve seen all four minutes and you know the answer is “nothing” but later on the News, a Whitehouse spokesperson says the same thing.
Republicans who were vocal in that brief moment of bipartisan moral clarity are suddenly walking back their earlier comments. Everything they say now is more equivocal. “New facts have come to light,” they say but they can’t say what those new facts are. On right-wing media, the victim of the shooting is now routinely caricatured as a demonic terrorist. Some overtly claim the victim was attempting to assassinate the President, others just imply that. More ‘moderate’ voices do not claim that the victim was definitely an assassin, just that it is important to keep your mind open and not “rush to judgement”. A mainstream news channel has two people debate the issue. “There’s NO evidence that anybody but Trump was an assassin!” Shouts one of the guests, clearly angry at the slanders against the victim. The moderator of the debate tells them to call down and that nobody should rush to judgement.
The New York Times publishes a story that the victim and their family is being investigated by the FBI. In two years time, you’ll read about how the story was literally true but also that the investigation was a formality and arose only because Republican lawmakers had swamped the FBI with absurd claims about the victim that they had read on the internet.
You feel like you are in nightmare world now. The country is in three camps. On one side are people like yourself who think it is a simple issue: Trump shot somebody and he should be arrested. Meanwhile, Facebook and the right-wing news media feels swamped with people CERTAIN that Trump bravely defended himself from a would be assassin who was a member of anti-fa and funded by George Soros. There a wise heads in the middle saying both sides need to calm down and listen to each other’s points so they can understand them better.
The victim’s family have gone into hiding and are under police protection.
The world keeps going of course. Eventually there are other events that push the story from the front pages: a hurricane, an earthquake, North Korea acting sketchy. Trump’s lawyers promise that the NYPD will get to interview him soon but they are keen to point out that due process applies to EVERYBODY.
A month later and Trump still hasn’t been interviewed. His lawyers and the DOJ are raising legal questions about the jurisdiction of the States and the separation of powers. They are making demands that the NY Attorney General can’t agree to. At the same time, Trump’s lawyers are complaining about the delays their own actions have caused, saying that the delays are preventing Trump for exonerating himself.
A month after that the shooting can only be understood on partisan lines. Trump has a fundraising letter portraying the demands he should be interviewed by the NYPD as a witch-hunt and an attempt by the Deep State to undermine the democratic will of the American People.
The victim’s family are still in hiding. They are in constant fear from death threats.
You don’t know what to believe anymore. One day on a bus you see somebody in a MAGA hat and you just lose it and scream and shout at them. The video goes viral and you become the face of left-wing intolerance. The New York Times posts a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger editorial about how ugly the left has become. No wise heads say that people shouldn’t rush to judgement about you.
A year later, the shooting isn’t even the first thing people mention when they complain about Trump.