“That’s how you’re supposed to handle these people,” Bender quotes him telling his top officials. “Crack their skulls!” On another occasion, Trump reportedly called for the military to go in and “beat the f**k out of them” – and several times, he told officials “just shoot them”. Met with resistance from Attorney General Bill Barr and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Milley, he then apparently clarified: “Well, shoot them in the leg, or maybe the foot. But be hard on them!”
“The leg, or maybe the foot” is just the sort of chilling-yet-childlike concession you’d expect to hear from Trump. In Milley’s telling, rather than backing down entirely when someone (Bill Barr!) pointed out the immorality of issuing violent reprisals for protesting, he negotiated over the degree of violence rather than the principle of what the state should and shouldn’t do to people expressing their constitutional rights.
There are, of course, words to describe the sort of head of state who responds to largely peaceful protest movements by demanding that the military go in to crack their citizens’ skulls and shoot them in the legs and/or feet.
What else does Bender’s story tell us? It’s easy enough to add it to the tall stack of anecdotes that proves just how unfit Trump was, and just how pathological his power-for-power’s-sake worldview is, too. But more crucially, it’s a reminder that while the last four years are often described as a low point in American political history, they might be better described as a narrow escape.
The theme of “it could have been so much worse” is the Trump administration’s one saving grace, a golden ribbon tied round a festering low-quality steak. More than a few times when it really mattered, the president’s worst impulses were checked, or diluted, or headed off.
Trump’s psychopathology-as-policy still had extraordinarily cruel consequences for millions of people, not least children separated from their parents and locked in cages or families kept apart by the ban on travel from predominantly Muslim countries. But again and again, just enough was done by the courts or the Congress to ensure that it could have been so much worse.
More to the point, it might be a whole lot worse next time around.