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People attend a prayer and candlelight vigil at Rancho Bernardo Community Presbyterian Church on Saturday, April 27, 2019 in Poway, California.

People attend a prayer and candlelight vigil at Rancho Bernardo Community Presbyterian Church on Saturday, April 27, 2019 in Poway, California. A gunman opened fire at the Congregation Chabad synagogue on the last day of Passover leaving one person dead and three others injured. The suspect is in custody. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

Trump and the San Diego Synagogue Shooting

The President Plays with Fire, and The Rest of Us Get Burned

Jeffrey C. Isaac

My mind was reeling. I was writing a column about Trump’s speech to the National Rifle Association in Indianapolis when I learned of yesterday’s (Saturday) synagogue shooting in California by a white supremacist.

The connection between these two events was immediate and obvious to me, as I will briefly explain in a moment.

A short time thereafter, I was treated to Trump’s brief response to the shooting, given on the White House lawn as he hurried off to his previously-scheduled Nuremberg-style rally in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

The response was by Trump’s standards unusually measured and seemingly-decent. By Trump’s standards. Seemingly decent.

You can see for yourself here:

The key phrases are these:

It looks like a hate crime — hard to believe, hard to believe — with respect to the synagogue in California . . . We’ll see what happens, what comes up. At this moment it looks like a hate crime. But my deepest sympathies to all of those affected. And we’ll get to the bottom of it . . Law enforcement’s done a fantastic job . . .

I’m heading out to Wisconsin right now, we have a lot of people, and they’ve been lined up for a day already, and I’m looking forward that . . .

And again, my deepest sympathies to the people, and families, and everybody affected by the shooting at the synagogue in California.

Some things about this statement are striking.

The most striking: Trump never mentions the words “anti-Semitism” or “Jewish people.” He simply cannot name the crime or its victims. For to do so would be too sensitive, too human—and also too problematic for the way he thinks about things and the company he keeps. The truth is, while he is quite fond of some Jewish people — his son-in-law Jared Kushner, his sycophantic Svengali of hate, Stephen Miller, and his partner-in-reaction, Bibi Netanyahu — he also loves his far-right base, and is drawn to their ways of thinking and being. It is thus contrary to his nature to care about anti-Semitism.

And, more importantly, it is contrary to the political world he has created.

What is equally striking: Trump says nothing about “we Americans” or the harm that is done to our society, and our political community, by crimes like these. Instead, he figures as the only victims those who were murdered or injured and their kin. (For Trump there is only family and cronies, and money, and rage). Nor does he say anything about how our government, the government of We The People, will respond to hate crimes such as this one. There can be no statesmanship from a man who hates the state—except when it can enrich him and harm those he dislikes. Nor can there be any sense of public grief, or public purpose. There is only him.

But of course, he cannot speak to these things. Because to him, such a hate crime is “unbelievable.”


What is actually unbelievable is that the President of the United States can say this, now, after all the recent synagogue shootings and church burnings, and after Charlottesville, and after the current news surrounding Christopher Hasson, the racist Coast Guard lieutenant who plotted to kill a number of leading liberal Democrats and journalists and who will not be charged by Trump’s Justice Department with crimes of domestic terrorism.

We can argue about many empirical facts, but here are two that are beyond dispute. There has been a dramatic upsurge in hate crimes in the U.S. in the past few years; and the Trump administration has done nothing about this, except to cut back on government efforts to deal with it. As Peter Beinart put it in a powerful article in the Atlantic (October 2018): “Trump Shut Program to Counter Violent Extremism: The administration has hobbled the infrastructure designed to prevent atrocities like Pittsburgh.”

He has done nothing, that is, except to scapegoat Central Americans and Muslims, and stoke generalized fear and resentment, and generate a political atmosphere of paranoia and conspiracy. And on a daily basis to promote and to enact a rhetoric of violence often advanced in the very service of violence.

And so, Trump, having shown his true uncaring and racist self on the White House lawn, headed off to Wisconsin. Having clearly been schooled by advisers—perhaps his Jewish daughter and son-in-law?– he led off his Green Bay speech with two paragraphs denouncing the California shooting, expressing “solidarity with the Jewish community,” and declaring that “we forcefully condemn the evil of anti-Semitism and hate.” But having delivered these obviously scripted words with typically wooden insincerity, he proceeded, without skipping a beat, right into his stump speech, denouncing “radical liberal democrats” as “scum”; railing against Mexican immigrants and “the fake news”; and describing the Mueller investigation as a “total fraud, the greatest political hoax in American history . . .  this witch hunt [which] was never really just about me. It was always about stopping you the millions and millions of freedom-loving citizens who rose up on that incredible November day.”

For Trump, it is always about Trump, and his greatness, and his hostility towards his political opponents, who must be cast not simply as his “enemies,” but as “enemies of the people.”

And this brings me back to Trump’s most recent extended rhetorical performance of violence at the National Rifle Association convention in Indianapolis. Here he is, denouncing the Mueller investigation as an attempted “coup” against the people:

Every day of my administration, we are taking power out of Washington, D.C. and returning it to the American people, where it belongs. And you see it now better than ever, with all of the resignations of all of the bad apples. They’re bad apples. They tried for a coup; didn’t work out so well. And I didn’t need a gun for that one, did I?

All was taking place at the highest levels in Washington, D.C.  You’ve been watching, you’ve been seeing.  You’ve been looking at things that you wouldn’t have believed possible in our country.  Corruption at the highest level — a disgrace.  Spying, surveillance, trying for an overthrow.  And we caught them.  We caught them.  Who would have thought in our country?

. . .  Far-left radicals in Congress want to take away your voice, your jobs, your rights, and they especially want to take away your guns.  You know that.  They want to take away your guns.  You better get out there and vote.  You better get out there and vote.  It seems like it’s a long ways away.  It’s not. . . We’re getting ready to start up the campaign again.  Start up the campaign again.  I never want to do anything with MAGA because MAGA country and MAGA — “Make America Great Again” has been great, but we’ve really made it great. We’ve made it great.  We’ve brought it back.  And we’re thinking about — slogan: “Keep America Great.”  Because you have socialists and far-left Democrats that want to destroy everything that we’ve done.

It was no mistake that Trump, ever the tribune of popular justice, began with a half-joking nod to violence (“And I didn’t need a gun for that one, did I?), and that he chose to attend this group of gun-owners and to foreground their “endangerment” by liberals supposedly seeking to seize their guns and to empower criminals. More important is how he ended: by invoking the memory of the Minutemen who fought the British at the start of the American Revolution:

Two months before the American Revolution broke out, with the shot heard around the world, a group of patriots gathered along a bridge in Salem, Massachusetts. In the preceding months, British soldiers had confiscated muskets in Boston. You know the story well.  Gunpowder was seized in Somerville. And the patriots in Salem knew that the Redcoats would soon come for the town’s cannons. But the Americans were prepared — they already loved our country — and they were determined to defend their rights to the death.  When hundreds of British soldiers arrived at the bridge, the Americans stood firm, blocking their path. When swords were drawn, they didn’t flinch. . .

In the courageous actions of those early Americans, we see the defiant and determined spirit of patriotism that has always willed America to its greatest victories.  It is a spirit that is passed down from generation to generation, from fathers and mothers to sons and daughters.  It is the spirit that lives in each and every one of you.

Our duty, our responsibility, our sacred charge, is to preserve the freedoms that our ancestors gave their very lives to secure. Because no matter how many centuries go by, no matter how much the world changes, the central drama of human history remains the same.

On one side are those who seek power, control, and domination. And on the other side are patriots like those in this hall who stand upright and plant their feet in eternal defense of our liberty.

This is not an appeal to Jeffersonian democracy. It is an endorsement of and incitement to the militia movement and to the spirit of vigilantism.

And then others do their violent dirty work.

And Trump is incredulous.

It is time for our credulousness to end.

Trump is poisonous to public life, and he must go.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Jeffrey C. Isaac

Jeffrey C. Isaac

Jeffrey C. Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. His books include: "Democracy in Dark Times"(1998); "The Poverty of Progressivism: The Future of American Democracy in a Time of Liberal Decline" (2003), and "Arendt, Camus, and Modern Rebellion" (1994).

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