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Some Banal Thoughts About the Mutuality of Evil in our Midst

We must defeat Trump, not entreat him

He is responsible for the violence. And he must go. Period. (Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr/cc)

He is responsible for the violence. And he must go. Period. (Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr/cc)

Another weekend, another two mass shootings, and murders. El Paso, Texas: 20 dead, 26 injured. Dayton, Ohio: 9 dead and 16 injured. The mind reels. The stomach wretches.

According to the Gun Violence Archive, these episodes are the 250th and 251st mass shootings of the year. It defines a mass shooting as “four or more shot and/or killed in a single event [incident], at the same general time and location not including the shooter.”

As USA Today noted: “The bloody 24 hours also came in a particularly painful week: Two people were shot and killed at a Walmart store in Southaven, Mississippi, south of Memphis, TN on Tuesday, and three people were killed by gunfire Sunday at the Gilroy Garlic Festival in northern California.”

We’ve been here before. The Columbine massacre took place in 1999, the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012. There is a long and outrageous recent history of mass shootings, and an equally long history of the very powerful gun lobby, led by the NRA, obstructing and reversing efforts to regulate and limit the use of military-grade, assault-type guns and even the freedom to carry such weapons openly in many states of this supposedly great Union of ours.

And yet things seem to have reached an inflection point with the administration — if you can call it that — of Donald Trump. For it has long been obvious that Trump is the president of white racial resentment and white supremacy. This truth is now so banal that it merits almost no discussion. This past weekend underscored a truth only slightly less banal: there has been a disturbing rise in hate crimes every year since 2016, when Trump rose to power, and an increasing number of highly visible crimes seem to be motivated by white racism, by a desire to both kill and terrorize people of color and thus to provoke a race war. As the racist terror network has grown and become emboldened, the Trump administration has pulled back on federal government efforts to monitor and counter the mobilization of violence. And while political science colleagues have furnished some strong evidence of a correlation between areas where Trump holds his Nuremburg-style rallies and the incidence of hate crime, it is obvious to any observer of the rallies that they foment racial resentment, anger, and violence by design.

This has long been known.

And yet even as it has been recognized, we have repeatedly been invited to imagine that as some moment Trump might “pivot” towards some semblance of normality, decency, and respect for the norms of constitutional democracy. Waiting for Trump to “pivot” is like waiting for Godot without the humor and the irony; in other words, it is fruitless, pointless, and disempowering. For as Ezra Klein observed two years ago: “There is no Trump pivot, and there never will be.”

It is time for every self-respecting commentator, journalist, politician, and citizen to stop making believe that Trump is a legitimate public official from whom we can expect conventional responses.

And yet even the most lucid and knowledgeable commentators on Trump’s racism and his responsibility for the violence before our eyes still hold out hope.

Former FBI official Frank Figliuzzi is a former FBI officer who regularly comments on these things for MSNBC. This past Sunday he was on television for hours, offering a message neatly summed up by this Newsweek article: “Trump Administration is ‘Facilitating and Enabling’ Youth to Commit ‘Terrorism,’ Ex-FBI Official Says After El Paso Shooting.” Figliuzzi called the shooting “an act of terrorism,” attributed it to “this hate-filled movement in the United States,” and linked the hate and the violence to the rhetoric of. At the same time, he equivocated in his allocation of responsibility:

Figliuzzi then argued that Trump and his administration “needs to come out and intervene,” otherwise he’s “facilitating and enabling” the hate problem that gives rise to such attacks. “Let’s understand something, this administration that we’re in needs to come out and intervene,” Figliuzzi said. “What do I mean by that? If you’re on the Islamic extremism side, you’ve got that cleric radicalizing that young person online. He’s the father figure, he’s giving the license, he’s facilitating and enabling. What we need is the similar figure — the President — to come out immediately, once this is confirmed, and say, ‘I stand for something other than hate, I rebuke all the hatred going on here,'” he continued. “Until we see the figure do that, that’s giving the license, we’ll continue to have this hate problem.”

Does Figliuzzi really believe that there is any question, right now, that Trump is facilitating and enabling the hate and the violence? He implies that this is in question, and that were Trump to “intervene” now, and make the “appropriate” statement, he could somehow avert responsibility. But that is simply wishful thinking, and Figliuzzi, former G-man, ought to know better. Instead of implying a contrast between Trump, the president, and “extremist” Islamist clerics, he should draw the proper analogy: Trump, the occupant of the presidency, is to American white supremacists what such clerics are to Islamist extremists: He’s the father figure, he’s giving the license, he’s facilitating and enabling. Trump has been doing this for years. Is there any reason at all to imagine him doing otherwise?

On this morning’s “Morning Joe” on MSNBC, similar wishful thinking could be heard from Democratic Congresswoman Veronica Escobar, an impressive woman who represents El Paso. Asked about Trump’s relationship to the mass murder, Escobar delivered a powerful and blistering critique: “Words have consequences. And the president has made my people, and my community, the enemy. He has told the country that we are people to be feared, people to be hated. . . . his words and his actions have played a role in this.” Escobar went even further, repudiating Trump’s promise to visit El Paso to pay condolences to the victims, insisting that his presence would be an affront to her community, a community that only a few months ago he poisoned with hits racism: “he is not welcome here, he should not come here while we are in mourning. This is one of the sites of his rallies . . .”

Escobar was direct and she was strong. And yet this is how even she capped off her comments about Trump and his staff: “I would encourage them to show him his own words and his actions at the rallies. Because we are not going to get past this until there is acknowledgment from the very top that we need to heal, that the whole country is hurting, that there has been bigotry, and racism, and hate that has been stoked at all levels, and as the president, he has the most significant authority and responsibility to show this country, to lead this country, into healing. And now is the time, and he needs to accept responsibility, everyone does, for what has gotten us to this point (she says this at around 7:30 of the tape).”

I understand her desire to reach for some gestures of “healing” from the chief executive of the U.S. But as she herself has noted, he is responsible for promoting the hatred and the violence. What could he say, or do, now, after everything he has done for years, to “lead the country into healing?” He has no moral authority at all. And he has made very clear, by his words and his deeds, including his Tweets this very morning, that he intends to continue to foment the resentment, the fear, the xenophobia, and the hatred. That is what he is responsible for, and in his more honest moments, he is happy to take responsibility for it.

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In the past day commentators have repeatedly referenced and displayed this video where Trump jokes about shooting immigrants at one of his Nuremberg-style rallies. He does similar things frequently. The overlaps between his rhetoric of “invasion” and the rhetoric of the manifesto almost certainly linked to the El Paso shooter, are powerful, and obvious, and have been widely noted. Medhi Hassan makes it clear in his recent commentary in The Intercept: “After El Paso, We Can No Longer Ignore Trump’s Role in Inspiring Mass Shootings.”

But many have been warning about this for months if not years. On April 28 I published a piece here on “Trump and the San Diego Synagogue Shooting” that discussed what I described as Trump’s “rhetorical performance of violence” at the National Rifle Association convention in Indianapolis. I quoted extensively from Trump’s denunciations of the Mueller investigation as an attempted “coup” against “the people”: “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?”

I noted that “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 how I concluded:

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.

That was in April, after Pittsburgh. Now it is August, and El Paso.

What comes next? When will we learn?

Trump cannot be the solution to the problem of racial hatred and violence, because he is the fomenter of racial hatred and violence. Trump cannot help us heal from the brutality of hate crimes, because his administration is a hate crime against American democracy.

It is pointless to entreat Trump. If we want something better, we have only one choice: to defeat him. It is time for every self-respecting commentator, journalist, politician, and citizen to stop making believe that Trump is a legitimate public official from whom we can expect conventional responses. He is responsible for the violence. And he must go. Period.

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; and Arendt, Camus, and Modern Rebellion.

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