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Goldberg: Did Trump literally threaten a 'bloodbath'? No, and claiming he did only helps his campaign

Republican presidential candidate and former President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally Saturday, March 16, 2024, in Vandalia, Ohio. (AP Photo/Jeff Dean)
Former President Trump at a campaign rally in Vandalia, Ohio, on Saturday. (Jeff Dean / Associated Press)

At a rally in Ohio on Saturday, Donald Trump said that if he is not elected in November, there will be a “bloodbath.”

That he said that much is true. Having actually read the text of his remarks, however, I do not believe he was threatening: Elect me president or the streets will run red with blood.

But that is exactly how many, particularly in the media, interpreted his comment. “In Ohio campaign rally, Trump says there will be a ‘bloodbath’ if he loses November election,” read a CBS News headline. “Trump says country faces ‘bloodbath’ if Biden wins in November,” announced Politico.

Read more: Goldberg: Trump and his MAGA movement stormed the Republican establishment. Now they have become it

In context, though, two things are pretty clear. First, Trump meant reelecting President Biden would be a catastrophe, or “bloodbath,” for the automotive industry. Second, his comments were a typically incoherent mess.

Trump defenders note correctly that the term “bloodbath” often is used metaphorically. It’s commonplace in coverage of Wall Street (“Five Tech Stocks That Survived NASDAQ’s Bloodbath This Year”), and Trump’s recent purge of Republican National Committee staff was dubbed a bloodbath by many of the outlets now aghast at Trump’s use of the word.

What Trump defenders elide is that the former president has forfeited any presumption of good intentions. Trump winks at and even celebrates violence all the time. He fawns over authoritarians and insists that presidents, like rogue cops, should have complete immunity to commit crimes. When the Capitol was under siege by a mob acting on his behalf, he declined to intervene for hours. He even defended the mob’s chants of “Hang Mike Pence!”

Read more: Goldberg: Nikki Haley keeps losing — and revealing something important about Trump and Republicans

Heck, Trump once again celebrated those “great patriots” of Jan. 6 during the same rally Saturday, declaring those convicted of assault and other crimes “hostages.” If these convicted criminals are hostages, where are the ransom demands?

In short, Trump, who routinely distorts others’ statements and plays footsie with violence, doesn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt when he uses terms like “bloodbath.”

But as Clint Eastwood’s character says in “Unforgiven,” “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.”

Where I disagree with both Trump’s defenders and many media critics in this brouhaha is that I don’t think the press is being dishonest in interpreting Trump’s use of the word. As evidenced by the absurd 2011 media frenzy over whether Sarah Palin’s “crosshairs” on a congressional map incited a madman to shoot then-Rep. Gabby Giffords, journalists often are desperate to find confirmation of their sincerely held views.

And elected Democrats often are eager to egg them on. “Headline writers: Don’t outsmart yourself,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) tweeted Saturday night. “Just do ‘Trump Promises Bloodbath if he Doesn’t Win Election.’ ” Many obliged.

I think those who see Trump as a singular threat to democracy, norms, decency and so on have some good arguments and evidence to back up their convictions. But if that’s what journalists believe, they have all the more reason not to indulge themselves and make the media the story. It may seem counterintuitive, but members of the Trump-hating press would help their own cause by being more restrained in their coverage. (And while I could make an idealistic case for more responsible reporting, I suspect appealing to the media’s more cynical impulse to advance their personal beliefs has more power.)

Trump actually benefits enormously from media overreaction to his irresponsible rhetoric. The people who instantly believe reports that Trump was threatening carnage have already decided to vote against him (or in some cases for him). Those aren’t the people who can still be persuaded one way or the other — the people who will decide the election.

Every time the media exaggerates or misleads on a specific story, it provides an opportunity for Trump and his Praetorian Guard to claim that the media exaggerate or mislead on every story. This has been the go-to strategy for Trumpworld from the Russian-collusion story onward. And it has worked.

Most persuadable voters dislike both Trump and Biden. If the goal is to convince these so-called double-haters to vote against Trump or for Biden, the media should get out of Trump’s way. We live in a moment when claiming to be a victim of the media is a badge of honor. And no one in American politics is better at playing the martyr than Trump.

Many in the press still seem to believe they can impose their view of Trump — and of the world generally — by simply asserting it. And yet this approach has backfired for decades now.

It’s not as if Trump won’t do or say more things that legitimately warrant outrage. So why not wait for those moments?

@JonahDispatch

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.