How our president and our mass shooters are connected to the same dark psychic forces.
What links Donald Trump to the men who massacred innocents in El Paso and Dayton this past weekend? Note that I said both men: the one with the white-nationalist manifesto and the one with some kind of atheist-socialist politics; the one whose ranting about a “Hispanic invasion” echoed Trump’s own rhetoric and the one who was anti-Trump and also apparently the lead singer in a “pornogrind” band.
Bringing up their differing worldviews can be a way for Trump-supporting or anti-anti-Trump conservatives to diminish or dismiss the president’s connection to these shootings. That’s not what I’m doing. I think Trump is deeply connected to what happened last weekend, deeply connected to both massacres. Not because his immigration rhetoric drove the El Paso shooter to mass murder in some direct and simple way; life and radicalism and violence are all more complicated than that. But because Trump participates in the general cultural miasma that generates mass shooters, and having a participant as president makes the problem worse.
The president’s bigoted rhetoric is obviously part of this. Marianne Williamson put it best, in the last Democratic debate: There really is a dark psychic force generated by Trump’s political approach, which from its birther beginnings has consistently encouraged and fed on a fevered and paranoid form of right-wing politics, and dissolved quarantines around toxic and dehumanizing ideas. And the possibility that Trump’s zest for demonization can feed a demonic element in the wider culture is something the many religious people who voted for the president should be especially willing to consider.
But the connection between the president and the young men with guns extends beyond Trump’s race-baiting to encompass a more essential feature of his public self — which is not the rhetoric or ideology that he deploys, but the obvious moral vacuum, the profound spiritual black hole, that lies beneath his persona and career.
Here I would dissent, mildly, from the desire to tell a mostly ideological story in the aftermath of El Paso, and declare war on “white nationalism” — a war the left wants because it has decided that all conservatism can be reduced to white supremacy, and the right wants as a way of rebutting and rejecting that reductionism.
By all means disable 8Chan and give the F.B.I. new marching orders; by all means condemn racism more vigorously than this compromised president can do. But recognize we’re dealing with a pattern of mass shootings, encompassing both the weekend’s horrors, where the personal commonalities between the shooters are clearly more important than the political ones. Which suggests that the white nationalism of internet failsons is like the allegiance to an imaginary caliphate that motivated the terrorists whose depredations helped get Trump elected in the first place. It’s often just a carapace, a flag of convenience, a performance for the vast TV-and-online audience that now attends these grisly spectacles, with a malignant narcissism and nihilism underneath.
And this is what really links Trump to all these empty male killers, white nationalists and pornogrind singers alike. Like them he is a creature of our late-modern anti-culture, our internet-accelerated dissolution of normal human bonds. Like them he plainly believes in nothing but his ego, his vanity, his sense of spite and grievance, and the self he sees reflected in the mirror of television, mass media, online.
Because he is rich and famous and powerful, he can get that attention with a tweet about his enemies, and then experience the rush of a cable-news segment about him. He doesn’t need to plot some great crime to lead the news; he just has to run for president. But having him as president — having him as a political exemplar for his party, and a cultural exemplar of manhood for his supporters and opponents both — is a constant ratification of the idea that we exist as celebrities or influencers or we don’t exist at all, and that our common life is essentially a form of reality television where it doesn’t matter if you’re the heel or hero so long as you’re the star.
One recurring question taken up in this column is whether something good might come out of the Trump era. I keep returning to this issue because unlike many conservatives who opposed him in 2016, I actually agree with, or am sympathetic toward, versions of ideas that Trump has championed — the idea of a
- more populist and worker-friendly conservative economics, the idea of a
- foreign policy with a more realpolitik and anti-interventionist spirit, the idea that
- decelerating low-skilled immigration would benefit the common good, the idea that
- our meritocratic, faux-cosmopolitan elite has badly misgoverned the republic.
But to take this view, and to reject the liberal claim that any adaptation to populism only does the devil’s work, imposes a special obligation to recognize the profound emptiness at the heart of Trump himself. It’s not as if you could carve away his race-baiting and discover a healthier populism instead, or analyze him the way you might analyze his more complex antecedents, a Richard Nixon or a Ross Perot. To analyze Trump is to discover only bottomless appetite and need, and to carve at him is like carving at an online troll: The only thing to discover is the void.
So in trying to construct a new conservatism on the ideological outline of Trumpism, you have to be aware that you’re building around a sinkhole and that your building might fall in.
The same goes for any conservative response to the specific riddle of mass shootings. Cultural conservatives get a lot of grief when they respond to these massacres by citing moral and spiritual issues, rather than leaping straight to gun policy (or in this case, racist ideology). But to look at the trend in these massacres, the spikes of narcissistic acting-out in a time of generally-declining violence, the shared bravado and nihilism driving shooters of many different ideological persuasions, is to necessarily encounter a moral and spiritual problem, not just a technocratic one.
But the dilemma that conservatives have to confront is that you can chase this cultural problem all the way down to its source in lonely egomania and alienated narcissism, and you’ll still find Donald Trump’s face staring back to you.
What ends lives? Gunfire.
What saves lives? The sound of gunfire.
The Virginia Beach shooting on Friday, when an employee of the city government killed 12 people — 11 of whom were his co-workers — is notable only for its familiarity. Another mass shooting. In fact, it was the worst mass-casualty event anyone can remember since … November 2018, at the Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks, Calif.
But details of the rampage include one fact unique to the growing list of active-shooter cases: the assailant used a .45-caliber handgun with extended magazines and a barrel suppressor. This small detail — that the loaded gun was fitted with simple, and lawful, “silencing” equipment — threatens to upend how we understand and train for active-shooter cases in the future.
Gun violence in America is unique not simply because of our culture but also because we have lawful weaponry that can kill many people very quickly. In terms of death-to-time ratio, single-shot weapons are preferable to multi-round handguns and handguns are preferable to the semiautomatic, and the favorite of mass shooters, the AR-15. It’s a simple calculation of time.
But the Virginia Beach killer seemed to want the anonymity of silence, a tool of the coward, not one seeking fame or a blaze of glory. None of the videos or manifestos we’ve seen from New Zealand to Las Vegas appear to be part of the Virginia Beach story. The killer wanted silence.
Silence is the enemy of time. An entire “run, hide, fight” policy that governs every school, workforce and the first-responder community in active-shooter cases is conditioned on an important premise: that there is situational awareness that shots have been fired, bullets are flying and it’s always best to run the other way. Once you know where the bullets are coming from, you can — as I tell my own kids — “sprint if you can; duck if you can’t; and fight only if you must. I only have one of each of you.”
Bystanders can run from the gunfire only if they know where it is coming from. This is why the best active-shooter training focuses on access to building or school exits and open, but protected, spaces so that potential victims can get out of the way.
For first responders, in a world that has adapted to lessons learned in school shootings, they no longer assume a potential hostage situation and now are trained to run toward the gunfire — assuming, of course, they know where it is. As Jonathan Wackrow, a former Secret Service agent, told me, this “is a major shift in the attack methodology. Now, absent having the situational awareness that an attack is taking place due to the sound of recognizable gunfire, we must reconfigure our ability to identify the immediate threat along with the corresponding response.”
Survival is all about sound.
In a society with no movement toward sensible gun-control measures, the flight-and/or-fight reaction is one of the few elements in an attack that citizens can control. In some instances, flight is not possible; in other instances, potential victims engage. Recently, for example, in North Carolina and Colorado, brave bystanders have decided they had no choice but to “fight if you must,” delaying the killer’s spree; both young men saved the lives of others but died as a result.
It is true that suppressors do not quiet guns; industry experts often cringe at the popular reference to “silencers.” Instead, suppressors act like a car muffler — both devices were pioneered by the same inventor, Hiram Percy Maxim — by cooling and dissipating the gases that emanate from the chamber as the trigger is being pulled. That alters the sound enough that the gunshot’s normal sound — a suppressed gunshot can sound like a chair scraping on the floor — is difficult to identify.
Suppressors are legal in 42 states, though they are regulated under the National Firearms Act and therefore are treated like other specialty gun accessories, including requiring a background check and a $200 tax. Recently, making suppressors more easily accessible has become a focal point of gun rights activists who want to increase dwindling gun sales and hunting groups who argue that suppressors are actually a health necessity in that they reduce hearing loss. As recently as June 2017, the then-Republican-majority House was considering a law to make the regulation of suppressors less onerous. You know, for the sake of the auditory sensitivities of shooters.
One mass shooting with a suppressor does not make a trend, nor does it require us to alter how we train for or respond to them. But, it does mean we must continue to vigorously regulate and even eventually ban these devices as essential steps in adopting common-sense gun-control measures.
Gun rights advocates are correct when they say that laws will not end all gun violence. But they never finish that thought. Our gun safety goal, and homeland security goal, must be to minimize the increasing likelihood that lots of people can be killed in a matter of minutes, with no capacity for escape or rescue.
To protect life, time is of the essence. And sound adds precious seconds.