Donald Trump has, on more than one occasion, used his Twitter account to threaten violence on a scale the rest of us, not being presidents ourselves, can never hope to achieve. You and I don’t have a nuclear button on our desks — even a very small one. Even when he’s not telling North Korea how close he is to incinerating them, however, he’s making explicit threats against political rivals, threats his position in the chain of command and his access to men with guns make a good deal more credible than when an angry video gamer all-caps shouts at a female Twitter celebrity.
In light of all this, many have pointed out that, well, Twitter has a policy against such behavior. In fact, Twitter routinely bans users for making far more minor and far less credible threats than those ejaculated daily, 280 characters at a time, by our president. Yet his account persists.
Why does Donald Trump get away with threatening violence, while we don’t? Why does he suffer no consequences for his actions, while you or I would be swiftly banned? Why, in short, does President Donald Trump of the United States live by a different set of rules than the rest of us?
The first, and easiest, answer is “Because Twitter says so.” It’s their platform, they can police it as they like, and in December, Twitter updated its terms of service to include a specific carve out in its “Violence and Physical Harm” policies for “military or government entities.” Trump, as the head of the Executive Branch, is exempt from Twitter’s rules regarding threats.
But that’s too easy an answer, and not just because the “military and government entities” exemption didn’t exist before December 2017. No, it’s too easy because this isn’t a question about Donald Trump and Twitter, but one muchbigger, about the very nature of the state itself.
Put simply, the state is, by definition, an organization that claims a geographic monopoly on the right to make threats and carry out violence. Law, written into regulations, legislation, and court decisions, is nothing more than a command and a threat to carry out violence against those who disobey. Without violence, you don’t have a state. Without threats of violence, you don’t have governments in any recognizable form. Donald Trump’s Twitter account is only an avatar of this most basic principle.
Thus the real question when we argue about whether Trump should get to make threats the rest of us can’t is whether that geographic monopoly on such behavior is permissible in the first place. Whether there’s something different about the state — and its agents — that allows it to legitimately and morally engage in behavior that would be seen as immoral, even monstrous, if any of us did the same.
That’s not a question to brush aside. The answer isn’t obvious, especially if you take the position that state violence is okay. It’s a question I’ve writtenand talked about at length here on Libertarianism.org. I believe the answer is “No.” No, we can’t meaningfully justify a special exemption from basic morality for state violence. No, it’s not okay for agents of government to behave in ways impermissible for the rest of us. It’s a deep, and difficult, aspect of thinking about government, and one we ignore at our peril.
If you genuinely believe Donald Trump’s threats of violence should be treated like any other threats of violence, and that threats of violence are never permissible, then congratulations, you’re an anarchist. But if you think it’s not okay for the president to threaten violence on Twitter, but it is okay for him to threaten and carry out violence via diplomatic channels, signed legislation, drone strikes, SWAT teams, ICE agents pounding on doors, business regulations, minimum wage laws, or IRS agents demanding jail time unless we hand over cash for the welfare state, then it’s likely you don’t have a realistic understanding of just what government is, or how its very existence depends on the threat and exercise of violence.