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:
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.”
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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:
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:
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.