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Story highlights

Zelizer: Trump's remarks on Second Amendment and Hillary Clinton grow out of logic of his campaign

He says Trump has reveled in violent rhetoric and sought to criminalize his opponents

Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a New America fellow. He is the author of “Jimmy Carter” and “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN) —  

We can’t be certain of what Donald Trump exactly intended when he warned his supporters about how a President Hillary Clinton would jettison the right to bear arms and then said: “If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do folks. Although the Second Amendment people — maybe there is, I don’t know.”

Some supporters, as well as some Republican opponents of the nominee, insist he was referring to how gun rights supporters would mobilize politically to defeat her. Some others — on both sides of the aisle — had a different reaction, namely that the Republican presidential candidate was raising the specter of assassination.

“Trump and his supporters have been scrambling wildly all day to explain away the inexplicable,” wrote Joe Scarborough in the Washington Post, “but they can stop wasting their time. The GOP nominee was clearly suggesting that some of the ‘Second Amendment people’ among his supporters could kill his Democratic opponent were she to be elected.”

While it is true that other presidential candidates have made intemperate remarks on the campaign trail – Hillary Clinton famously defended her decision to stay so long in the 2008 race by saying “we all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California” (she quickly apologized for the comment) –Trump’s remarks are fundamentally different.

They grow out of the logic of a campaign which has reveled in violent rhetoric, sought to criminalize his opponents, and cast doubt on the legitimacy of anyone who seeks to defeat him. Trump has always been one step away from making a remark or uttering a joke about using violence against the opposition, and Tuesday he seemed to have crossed the line.

The trajectory of his campaign was evident during the Republican primaries. While it is unfair to blame any candidate for violence that occurs among supporters at rallies and events, what was notable in his speeches was how he actually referred to doing physical harm to protesters.

Whether that was in a “jokey” way or not was beside the point. As anyone in elected office knows, politicians have great power to sway their supporters and it is incumbent upon them not to encourage this kind of action.

Shortly before the Nevada caucus, speaking about a protester at a rally, Trump said, “I’d like to punch him in the face.” At a press conference in March in Palm Beach, Florida, Trump was asked about a white supporter who had sucker-punched an African American protester being escorted out of a rally. Trump responded: “It was a guy who was swinging — was very loud — and then started swinging at the audience. And you know what? It swung back. And I thought it was very, very appropriate. He was swinging. He was hitting people. And the audience hit back.”

In response to speakers at the Democratic Convention, Trump said that he wanted to “hit a number of those speakers so hard, their heads would spin,” though he wasn’t clear on whether he meant “hit” in a physical or verbal way.

Trump’s campaign has centered on criminalizing Hillary Clinton. From the moment he announced his nickname for her, “Crooked Hillary,” it became pretty clear where Trump was going to go with his attacks.

Using the email scandal and Benghazi as the basis of his accusation, Trump has set out to depict the Democratic nominee as nothing more than a high-level criminal who has managed to escape punishment. More than anything else, this became the central theme of the Republican National Convention.

While challenging the character of your opponent is nothing new in American politics (Lyndon Johnson warned that Barry Goldwater was unstable enough to start a nuclear war; Ronald Reagan basically accused Jimmy Carter of willfully allowing the Iranians to retain control of the American hostages), the level of vitriol directed toward Clinton was pretty astounding.

The main chant in the convention hall at Cleveland was “Lock her up!” And there were many convention speakers who actually joined in with the delegates. One of the most stunning moments took place when Lt. General Michael Flynn told the delegates that “We do not need a reckless president who believes she is above the law.” The crowd started to chant, “Lock her up!” Rather than asking for calm, Flynn incited, “Lock her up, that’s right. Yep, that’s right, lock her up.”

Notably Trump has surrounded himself with some unsavory figures who have echoed these darker themes. One of Trump’s advisors on veterans affairs, New Hampshire state representative Al Baldasaro, said on Jeff Kuhner’s radio show of the Clinton email story: “This whole thing disgusts me. Hillary Clinton should be put in the firing line and shot for treason.”

A Trump spokesperson said they didn’t agree with the remarks, though it appears Baldasaro still has his job in the campaign. During a campaign rally in New Hampshire three days ago, Trump didn’t distance himself from his adviser. “Al has been so great,” Trump said to the audience, “Where’s Al? Where’s my vet?”

Since the convention, the Trump narrative has continued to develop. Facing plummeting polls in almost every part of the country, from swing states to red states, Trump started to question the legitimacy of the entire election process.

Building on a theme that he used after losing the Iowa caucus to Ted Cruz, Trump has warned his supporters that the election will be “rigged.” As many observers noted from the moment he uttered these words, Trump’s statements are dangerous, particularly given the intense passion of his supporters, for they call into question the entire democratic process and suggest that Hillary Clinton is somehow trying to steal the election from him. Of course, the argument flowed logically from the claims that were made in Cleveland.

Even if someone wants to give Trump the benefit of the doubt about his remarks on the gun rights community, what’s most notable is that at this point in the campaign so many people don’t have confidence that he didn’t mean to refer to the threat of assassinating her. Every presidential campaign constructs a narrative about their opponents, and the story that Donald Trump has spun leads many people to the conclusion that he meant to say exactly what it sounded like he was saying.

The Republican’s campaign is not working right now and it’s doing immense damage to the party’s brand name. It’s making a highly charged atmosphere even more dangerous.

Trump needs to understand that being a political leader brings with it the responsibility of containing the anger of your supporters and directing those emotions toward policy and political debate instead of violence. He needs to know that with a large following of loyal supporters he can’t control, his off-the-cuff statements could have devastating consequences.