This most recent phase of the Trump presidency is the most dangerous so far. He has, of course, encouraged violence, or suggested its efficacy, on many occasions in the past. In March, in an interview with Breitbart News, he made it plain that he was sympathetic to those of his supporters who might feel compelled to become violent on his behalf. “I can tell you I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump. I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough—until they go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad.” And he has spoken about the press in such a way as to possibly stimulate thoughts of violence among his more fervent adherents.
But in this latest phase, his rhetoric has become particularly sweeping. Brown people in general have become his targets. And there is no reason to hope that he will reform. His followers reward his radicalism, and his handlers are among the most cynical figures in American political history. His aide Kellyanne Conway tweeted on Sunday, “Working as one to understand depraved evil & to eradicate hate is everyone’s duty. Unity. Let’s do this.” And his daughter Ivanka wrote, in a way that hints at a permanent separation from reality, “White supremacy, like all other forms of terrorism, is an evil that must be destroyed.” And, of course, there is no one of any influence in his party who is willing to confront him.
I watched the video recording of the rally in Panama City shortly after reading the El Paso killer’s so-called manifesto. It is a document littered with phrases and rhetorical devices injected into mainstream discourse by the president and his supporters—talk of a “Hispanic invasion,” accusations that Democrats support “open borders,” and the like. As Trump faces the possibility that he will lose the presidency next year, he may become more enraged, and more willing to deploy the rhetoric of violence as a way to keep his followers properly motivated. The Panama City speech was an important moment in Trump’s ongoing effort to make the American presidency a vehicle in the cause of marginalizing and frightening racial minorities; the killings are a possible (and predictable) consequence of such rhetoric.
Three years ago, The Atlantic, in its endorsement of Hillary Clinton for president (an editorial motivated not by love for Clinton but by fear of Trump), stated, “In one of the more sordid episodes in modern American politics, Trump made himself the face of the so-called birther movement, which had as its immediate goal the demonization of the country’s first African American president. Trump’s larger goal, it seemed, was to stoke fear among white Americans of dark-skinned foreigners.” It is depressing to realize that we were correct (though, if anything, understated in our analysis), and it is depressing to think that there is no immediate way out of this crisis.
Former president Barack Obama called on the country Monday to reject words “coming out of the mouths of any of our leaders” that feed fear and hatred and normalize racist sentiments, a tacit rebuke of President Trump in the wake of the Texas and Ohio shootings. In a statement posted to his Twitter and Facebook accounts, Obama said such language has been at the root of most human tragedy, from slavery to the Holocaust to the Rwandan genocide. “It has no place in our politics and our public life,” he said. “And it’s time for the overwhelming majority of Americans of goodwill, of every race and faith and political party, to say as much — clearly and unequivocally.” Obama’s statement came hours after Trump delivered an address from the White House about the weekend of carnage in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, that left 31 people dead and scores wounded.
Obama did not mention Trump by name in his statement, although he sharply criticized the type of inflammatory rhetoric about immigrants and ethnic minorities that has become a staple of Trump’s reelection campaign. “We should soundly reject language coming out of the mouths of any of our leaders that feeds a climate of fear and hatred or normalizes racist sentiments; leaders who demonize those who don’t look like us, or suggest that other people, including immigrants, threaten our way of life, or refer to other people as sub-human, or imply that America belongs to just one certain type of people,” Obama said. He also compared white nationalist shooters to “followers of ISIS and other foreign terrorist organizations,” noting that they “may act alone, but they’ve been radicalized by white nationalist websites that proliferate on the internet.”
Last year, when a rabid, anti-immigrant antisemite murdered 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue, I called it an act of domestic terrorism inspired by the ideology of Trumpism. The shooting took place during the height of the 2018 midterm campaign when Trump was inciting fear of an immigrant “caravan” from Central America. The shooter got the message. Hours before his bloody rampage, he accused a Jewish refugee support agency of bringing “invaders in that kill our people”. Saturday in El Paso it was deja vu all over again. Trump has launched his 2020 re-election campaign this summer by doubling down on the theme of racial and ethnic division and anti-immigrant hysteria. And as sure as the sun rises in the east, a mere month into this racially charged atmosphere, an extremist suspect fearful of Hispanics gaining political power in Texas decided to go kill as many Hispanics as possible at an El Paso Walmart. It is Trump-inspired terrorism yet again.
The president’s defenders have taken great offense to the notion that any of his actions or rhetoric have contributed to what happened in El Paso, but this defense is deeply flawed. First, the assertion that Trump can be absolved of responsibility because he condemns violence by white supremacists reflects a misunderstanding of how homegrown domestic terrorism works. It doesn’t require an overt appeal to violence to motivate an ideological extremist to engage in violence. Indeed, individuals often move from being a passive supporter of a cause to a mobilized killer when their political grievances are amplified, and their enemies are dehumanized. So when Trump goes on Twitter and television calling migrants “invaders” and dehumanizes them by suggesting they are “infesting” America, he is motivating aggrieved individuals to take action into their own hands by using violence.
Second, the claim that Trump shares no blame for the shooting because he rejects the white supremacist ideology of the El Paso shooter is blatantly at odds with the facts. Indeed, the central political project of the Trump presidency has been reducing the political power of non-white people in America – a key tenet of white supremacist thinking. Trump took action to reduce the number of minorities coming to America in the opening days of his administration when he halted immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries and temporarily suspended the refugee program. He has subsequently dramatically reduced the number of refugees admitted to the US each year and is threatening to drop the number to zero in 2020. Trump’s demand that the census include a question about citizenship is also consistent with a white supremacist agenda. It is firmly established that such a question would suppress census participation by noncitizens and perhaps recent immigrants as well, thereby reducing the political power of the states where they reside.
Of course Trump’s notorious policy of separating children from their parents and detaining them in squalid conditions is part and parcel of the white supremacist desire to deter migration to the United States and dehumanize those who dare attempt to gain legal residency. And, when Trump suggested last month that four members of Congress of color who were born or naturalized in the United States “came from” other countries, he ratified the core concept of white supremacy that nonwhite people are not truly “Americans”. The manifesto the El Paso shooter posted online reflects that he understood and endorsed the president’s political program to a T. The attack, the shooter wrote was “in response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas”. Echoing the president’s logic that cruel conditions of confinement will deter migration, the shooter opined that his use of violence would provide a needed “incentive” for Hispanics to return to their home countries. His violent actions were necessary, he wrote, to save America from destruction.
Finally, while Trump does not overtly call for his supporters to use violence to further his agenda, his rhetoric is infused with notions of violence and dehumanization. The “send her back” chant Trump allowed to continue for 13 seconds at a campaign rally was an explicit call for the power of the state to be used to forcibly expatriate a foreign-born immigrant citizen. Last week he called a minority community in Baltimore a “rodent, rat-infested mess” – mixing images of urban minorities with inhuman pests and vermin. These messages are not lost on people like the El Paso shooter: “Your president shares your view that immigrants and racial minorities are a scourge on America. They are not deserving of the privileges of citizenship and must be denied political power at all costs. They are animals anyway, so the use of violence is permissible.” We remain 15 months from the 2020 election. It is staggering to imagine how much more violence this president may motivate if he continues down this deeply disturbing path.
The rule holds: Everything Trump touches dies. From standing on the verge of one of Washington’s most powerful offices to a tweeted shrug of dismissal from the President, Congressman John Ratcliffe (R-Coffeeboy) is the latest, inevitable victim of the career-ending, reputation-shattering career curse that is Donald Trump. There is no better Trump. There is no considered Trump. There is no strategy, only reflex and stochastic noise inside his wee, bony cranium. Trump is sometimes wily, but never smart. He is occasionally possessed of the devil’s own luck, but he is never good.
The endless string of acting temporary provisional kinda sorta operating secretaries of various departments continues. There are three reasons for this worst-practice; first, when Trump is recruiting for positions, he hires for all the wrong reasons. Competence? Experience? Judgement? Knowledge? Comrade, please. Trump is looking for the right appearance (white, thin, and good-looking) joined to a jihadi-style strap-on-the-bomb-vest loyalty to esoteric Trumpism, plus an ability to parrot the most ludicrous talking points to keep the ravenous maw of the FoxTrump-Oxymerica feedback loop spinning.
Next, even Moscow Mitch’s Senate is starting to get a little nervous about the roaring talent and policy vacuum in our national security apparatus. Ratcliffe was going to face rough sledding, even from Trump stalwarts. Confirming the people Trump likes is becoming a heavier lift with every failed appointment. Finally, quality people with things like, you know, experience would rather stick their junk in a light socket than work for Trump. It takes a particularly needy, stunted set of ambitions to work for Trump, particularly in the national security sector, particularly given Trump’s fiery hatred of the intelligence world.
The current DNI, Dan Coats, a former U.S. Senator with a bipartisan reputation for probity and good judgment, was never a good fit for Team Trump; he had the terrible habit of calling America’s stated enemies out for their actions and behavior instead of publicly fellating them. He was an old-school Republican who gave a damn about national security and has a record in Congress to prove it. He was a serious person for a serious job, even if the President wasn’t. Trump blamed his Ratcliffe reversal on “the lamestream media” even as boasted that he saved lots of money by just floating names to see what got reported on them rather than, you know, vetting them. It would almost—almost—be funny if the job Trump tapped Ratcliffe to fill, before dumping him, wasn’t so deadly important and the stakes for the United States weren’t so high.