So it’s all about Donald Trump’s responsibility: is he or is he not responsible for what this latest of esteemed Floridian Cesar Sayoc did, sending pipe bombs to all of Trump’s topmost targets of hate.
His supporters say no, of course not—the same supporters who spent the eight Obama years accusing that Muslim terrorist of being divisive just because, say, he did not applaud cops every time they gunned down an unarmed black man. Trump’s detractors will say yes, of course he’s responsible even though they seemed perfectly OK with the message Hillary Clinton sent women and girls—not to mention the blame-the-victim message she sent predators—when she vilified her husband’s rather justified accusers.
The temptation is to make all sorts of equivalencies and equivocations. But let’s not be cowards or sophists in Kellyanne Conway’s pay about it.
I’ve never much believed in most of what poses as cause and effect reasoning. Violent video games don’t turn people into mass murderers anymore than blood and gore movies do, otherwise the only seven people on earth who’d not be murderers are in an isolated biosphere somewhere—and it’s probably them you have to worry about most. Pornography doesn’t make serial rapists of every man or woman who watches it anymore than watching stand-up comedy makes everyone a stand-up comic.
And for all the unfortunate similarities between pornography and Fox News—conceding of course that pornography is more wholesome, honest and desirable—we can’t very well go around accusing Fox of much irresponsibility even as it depraves and perverts reality if we agree that a) we’re all defenders of free expression no matter who the purveyor, b) Fox News is in the comedy and porn business, as its fair-and-balanced disclaimer and lewd patriotism make clear up front.
So when it paints immigrants, black lives, muslims, liberals, transgender people, the “mainstream media” and the rest of Trump’s herd of hate as un-American tumors that must be excised to keep the republic from going the way of Scandinavia, it’s understood that the network is peddling pre-packaged gratification that’s been as apple pie as the Mayflower’s cargo since that bunch of miserable bigots reached these shores.
There’s always been an audience for such nationalistic yarns just as there’s always been fans of British royalty or believers in Martians, angels and hell. It’s also understood that if some people really believe that stuff—we’ve always had that segment of Coughlinists and Birchers and McCarthyists and Goldwaterites and other paranoiacs—most don’t.
The problem isn’t the yarn, or even when people like Cesar Sayoc take it seriously. The problem is when a president does. That’s been Trump’s doing. He’s turned xenophobia, bigotry and violence into gospel, weaponizing it all in the hands of otherwise harmless imbeciles who now feel empowered to go around mailing bombs, to chant “Jews will not replace us,” and, as I learned even as I was writing this—because that’s our America: it is a daily testament to the depravities of born-again fanatics—to gun down Jews at a synagogue in, of all places, Pittsburgh: so much for being “elected to represent the people of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” monsieur le président.
Liberalism isn’t doing this. Immigrant hordes aren’t doing this. God knows even al-Qaeda and ISIS aren’t doing this, to their eternal surprise and certain delight. Even Fox News isn’t doing this: it is neither that capable nor influential. But Trumpism is.
What Trump has never grasped—or what he refuses to concede, because it would neutralize the Cult of Trump—is that the presidency isn’t a news outlet, it’s not a Twitter feed or a narcissist’s stage. It’s not even the man who occupies it. It’s the sum total of who we are and what we aspire to be. No word out of any news outlet’s talking heads moves markets, starts wars or changes entire nation’s policies. A word from the American president does. Trump knows it. But in his hands it’s been reduced to a cult of one appealing to the basest motivations of the basest impulses, the worst of what we are, the vilest of what we always have the potential to be.
This president’s first instinct as the pipe bombs were circulating this week was to blame CNN. His first instinct during Charlottesville’s homage to Kristallnacht was to declare “some” of the neo-Nazis “fine people.” His go-to playbook at rallies is to get the crowd to verbally lynch CNN and reporters. His first instinct, which happens to be his great joy, is to debase.
We can delude ourselves into thinking that his most abject followers are just mentally ill outliers, the way we love to do after mass shootings, as if those killers had no connection to their surroundings, as if they reflected nothing of what we have become. But Trump can’t have it both ways. He can’t revel in his powers of denigration and incitement then take cover behind a bogus sense of outrage and his usual deflections when the incitement and denigration arm fuses and kill people.
This is his doing. Absolutely. Irrevocably. Many of us are no longer safe in our own country, from our own president. And he’s not the man to stop it. Only feed more of it.