The Second Amendment people

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The controversial words about the Second Amendment that Donald Trump uttered at a rally in North Carolina yesterday are as follows:

Hillary wants to abolish
— essentially abolish —
the Second Amendment.
By the way,
if she gets to pick her judges… [long pause]
Nothing you can do, folks. [long pause]
Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don't know.

Trump defenders are denying that this was an oblique encouragement to gun-possessing supporters to shoot Mrs Clinton. His own defense is that he was suggesting people should go to the polls and vote. Utter bullshit. This is perhaps Trump's most outrageous remark yet. He couldn't have blown the dog whistle much louder without being in danger of arrest for encouraging violence.

The three key linguistic points are (1) the reference of the noun phrase "the Second Amendment people", (2) the meaning of the modal adjunct "maybe", and (3) the function of the "I don't know" on the end.

Who are "the Second Amendment people"? It has to be those who own guns. They're the only group who would be relevant to the matter under discussion in the sense that they might be able to do something. Remember, the preceding utterance was: "Nothing you can do, folks," and he's qualifying that with a possible exception applying to one subset of the American electorate.

And what about the "maybe" and the "I don't know" tag? "Maybe" entails that "there is [something you or they can do]" is only a possibility, nothing definite; and "I don't know" is a device via which he can purport to distance himself from the conversational implicatures of the foregoing words, as if he cannot quite see what might follow from there being (possibly) something the Second Amendment people (as opposed to others) could do.

The "maybe" on its own is enough to establish that he couldn't possibly be (as he claimed once questioned about this) simply urging those "Second Amendment people" to go to the polls and vote: we are definitely having an election, so "Second Amendment people", like everyone else, can definitely go to the polls and express their preference. He is implicating that maybe there is something else they — just the "Second Amendment people" with their not-yet-confiscated guns, not the rest of us — could do to stop Mrs Clinton from appointing judges who would weaken the Second Amendment.

The episode shows off Trump's characteristic ice-skating skills: he is amazingly close to the edge of the thin ice, yet not in the water because didn't actually say "use their guns" or "shoot the bitch". You could call it clever. But it also shows Trump's characteristic disinclination to behave like a person who would honorably and sensibly carry out the duties of the head of the executive branch and the armed forces. Like his recent rhetorical question about why we have nuclear weapons, it is appallingly irresponsible. Perhaps the worst we have yet seen. But I guess there may be more such wild and irresponsible remarks to come as he approaches November, and the election for which he is so woefully unsuited as a candidate.

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