Republican presidential hopefuls are out for blood — literally.
Former President Donald Trump wants shoplifters shot in their tracks. He recently lamented that former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley couldn’t be put to death for assuaging China’s concerns following the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol. In his last year as president, he revived and expanded the federal death penalty — allowing for firing squads to be used in certain states — and now he wants to execute child traffickers.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Harvard Law graduate who served as a lawyer in the Navy, promises to kill suspected drug smugglers crossing the Mexican border. Without investigation, arrest or trial, he has said, they will end up “stone cold dead” if he’s elected president. In Florida, he has broadened the death penalty so that people who commit heinous crimes short of homicide — such as sexual battery against children — can be executed. And he backed legislation offering immunity to people who run over protesters with their vehicles.
At last week’s GOP presidential primary debate, DeSantis’ message to Israel about how it should respond to the Oct. 7 Hamas attack was simple: “Finish the job once and for all with these butchers, Hamas.” Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley had an even shorter but similarly clear message: “Finish them.”
Haley, like DeSantis, has said she would send U.S. special forces into Mexico to “eliminate” drug cartels.
The Haley and DeSantis campaigns didn’t reply to requests for comment.
“The escalation in violent language reflects the escalation in ostensible dangers posed by the threats manufactured to stoke the fears of the MAGA base,” said Mac Stipanovich, a longtime Florida Republican operative who has become a vocal anti-Trump voice.
Irrespective of the advisability, practicality or legality of the various proposals, they suggest the candidates believe voters will reward them for a particular trait: bloodlust.
That’s especially true when it comes to a set of issues that animate the Republican base in the Trump era — crime, illegal immigration and trafficking of drugs and children — creating a race among the hopefuls to outmuscle one another. Even when they aren’t calling for the killing of suspects and criminals in the U.S. or targets in other countries, the top candidates are taking hawkish positions on those issues.
In an interview with The New York Times, longtime Trump adviser Stephen Miller previewed what he called a “blitz” to thwart illegal immigration in a prospective second Trump administration.
“Any activists who doubt President Trump’s resolve in the slightest are making a drastic error: Trump will unleash the vast arsenal of federal powers to implement the most spectacular migration crackdown,” Miller said. “The immigration legal activists won’t know what’s happening.”
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has failed to gain much traction in the polls, criticized Trump and DeSantis in remarks at the Hudson Institute in Washington on Wednesday, pointing specifically to Trump’s recent formulation that his domestic political critics are “vermin” who are more of a threat to national security than foreign enemies. Christie said Trump’s rhetoric echoes the propaganda of the Nazis.
Moreover, Christie suggested DeSantis is mimicking Trump with his own violent rhetoric. One example Christie pointed to: DeSantis’ pledge to “start slitting throats” of federal bureaucrats “on Day 1” of his administration — which DeSantis later said was simply a “figure of speech” he used to draw attention to his effort to downsize the government.
“When Ron DeSantis thinks it sounds tough, saying he’s going to slit the throats of bureaucrats or shoot immigrants stone cold dead at the border, use the United States army to invade Mexico, [it] is fundamentally unserious,” Christie said in a speech at the conservative think tank. “This is TV tough-guy talk, which he learned from his mentor, Donald Trump.”
Responding to this article, Steven Cheung, a Trump campaign spokesperson, said it’s actually Democrats who have called for violence “against President Trump and his supporters.”
“President Trump is the law and order candidate, while liberals like [President Joe] Biden, Nancy Pelosi, Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Watters, and Jon Tester have riled up their supporters to foment dangerous unrest,” he said.
But Biden’s campaign pointed right back at the GOP.
“MAGA Republicans don’t have a positive vision to run on, so they resort to violent rhetoric and fanning the flames of division,” campaign spokesman Ammar Moussa said. “With no vision and deeply unpopular policies, they know the only way to win is by tearing the country apart. President Biden ran in 2020 to restore the soul of the nation and bring us together — and that’s why he got more votes than any presidential candidate in American history. Americans will once again reject Donald Trump and MAGA Republicans’ hateful and divisive message next November.”
The top candidates for the GOP nomination, who portray the push toward more violent policy outcomes as an attempt to restore “law and order,” have all signed on to an idea gaining steam more broadly in the party that military force should be used against Mexican drug cartels, in large part to stem the flow of illegal drugs into the U.S. The issue of border security has always been a go-to in Republican politics, but in recent months party leaders have started framing it in more overtly violent terms.
“When it comes to the cartels, we should treat them like the terrorists that they are,” Haley told Fox News in August. “I would send in special operations there and eliminate them just like we eliminated ISIS and make sure they know there’s no place for them.”
But they have also been walking a tightrope as they try to appeal to voters’ desire for demonstrations of strength while respecting the base’s wariness of sending American troops into battle. Businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, who is polling behind Trump, DeSantis and Haley, less regularly invokes that kind of bellicose rhetoric — but he has also veered into especially gruesome territory.
“I would love nothing more than for the IDF to put the heads of the top 100 Hamas leaders on stakes and line them up on the Israel-Gaza border,” Ramaswamy said last month in a speech at the Republican Jewish Coalition Summit, referring to the Israel Defense Forces.
Trump, who is leading the field by dozens of points in national polling and state-by-state surveys, often notes that he didn’t enter the U.S. into any new wars during his term as president. A national GOP strategist said DeSantis and Haley try to one-up Trump’s rhetoric but asserted that Trump tends to be more restrained in his commentary when it comes to foreign wars.
"Nikki Haley especially and DeSantis, to some extent, have a hawkish instinct that comes out when they speak like this. Whereas Trump [says] al-Baghdadi ‘died like a dog,’ and he says savage stuff, but he seems to have less of the bloodthirsty instinct that it sounds like when they speak like this," the source said.
This person added that such rhetoric actually may not play well with Republican voters who seek to stay out of foreign entanglements because it comes across “like you’re a little too comfortable with the warfare.”
Trump supported the idea of launching missiles into Mexico to combat cartels as early as 2020, according to a memoir written by former Defense Secretary Mark Esper, and DeSantis has said the U.S. should use “deadly force” against migrants suspected of bringing drugs across the border.
For DeSantis, like Trump, it’s the latest in long line of examples of policy and rhetoric being framed by an eagerness for violence or, in some cases, death.
Most notably, as DeSantis was gearing up to run for president early this year, he got large Republican majorities in the Florida Legislature to pass a measure making child rapists eligible for the death penalty even if their victims don't die.
The measure directly contradicts U.S. Supreme Court rulings that found it is unconstitutional to sentence someone to death for a crime less than homicide.
DeSantis at the time said he hoped the new Florida law would give the Supreme Court an opportunity to set a precedent expanding the death penalty.
“In Florida, we believe it’s only appropriate that the worst of the worst crimes deserve the worst of the worst punishment,” he said.
Another law signed by DeSantis gets rid of a requirement that jurors must agree unanimously that someone deserves the death penalty. It allows for the death penalty with 8-4 juries, the lowest standard in the country. Alabama also allows for non-unanimous death penalty sentences, but a 10-2 threshold is required, according to the American Bar Association.
The proposals easily passed the Florida Legislature, which was eager to give DeSantis wins ahead of his expected run for president. But the changes did come with pushback from some criminal justice reformers who said they went too far.
“With this new legislation, Florida runs the haunting risk of sentencing more innocent people to death,” Melanie Kalmanson, a member of the American Bar Association’s Death Penalty Representation Project Steering Committee, said when the bill passed. “In addition, the state will impose sentences of death that are almost certainly unconstitutional.”
GOP strategist David Kochel said that to the extent bloodlust is a phenomenon, it’s isolated to Trump.
“I think Trump is a category difference. It’s the brand,” Kochel said. “Nobody is really trying to compete with him. He says unhinged things to make liberals in the media lose their minds and attack him. It’s how he optimizes the attention market. The media has fallen for it for eight years.”
But a Republican strategist who advised one of the candidates who has already dropped out said the hopefuls are competing with one another to meet the requirements of primary voters.
“People are angry, and they want action,” the strategist said. “It’s not about the specific promises or policies. It’s about conveying a sense of urgency, anger and action.”
Scott Howell, another veteran Republican operative, said some of it is simply a function of primary politics.
“It is a primary. If AOC was in Democratic primary, she would be pulling Joe Biden further to the left," Howell said, referring to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the progressive congresswoman from New York.
"There is a lot of crap going on right now, and emotions are high," he added. "I think, candidly, a lot of them are just throwing hooks in the water and see what fish they can catch."