Seemingly devoted to making our country into the Divided States of America, the President who smeared and offended Muslims and Latinos is now doing the same for Jews. Speaking in the Oval Office, Donald Trump accused Jews who vote for Democrats of having “either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty.”With those nine evil words, he deployed a vague but potent trope about Jewish patriotism. Accusations of “disloyalty” were flung at Jews in Nazi Germany and have been used to smear Jews around the world. Trump wasn’t specific about the loyalty Jewish Democrats were violating.
- To Israel?
- To Judaism?
- To America?
- To Trump?
He subsequently explained to reporters Wednesday that he had meant that those who support Democrats are disloyal to “Jewish people” and to Israel. He did not explain why he should be considered a proper judge of Jewish Americans’ obligations.The uproar over Trump’s remarks drew press attention away from rising evidence that the US is headed for an economic meltdown. The economy has been his main claim to presidential success. On the very day he shouted-out to anti-Semites, Trump also admitted that more tax cuts are being considered as a way to halt the slide into recession.Confusing and outrageous statements are key to Trump’s style of attention-seeking, which he refined over decades of manipulating the tabloid press in New York City. Back then he would make outrageous statements about
- his own wealth,
- plant stories about the famous women pursuing him for romance, and
- jump into controversies like the attack on a jogger in Central Park, which he exploited with signed advertisements calling for New York state to reinstate the death penalty.In the jogger case, Trump wasn’t so bold as to say the youngsters arrested for the crime should be executed, but the implication was obvious. (It should be noted that they were eventually exonerated of the crime.) The wording meant that Trump could exploit the dangerous anger people felt about the attack, but in an indirect way.By the time he began his 2016 campaign for president, Trump had perfected his method of attaching escape-hatch-caveats to inflammatory words about groups of people. So it was that he said that a few “good people” were among the immigrants from Mexico whom he described as rapists and people bringing drugs.With his “lack of knowledge” and “great disloyalty” smear, Trump again picked up his favorite playthings — dangerous words — and threw them around recklessly. Those who identify with neo-Nazis chanting “Jews will not replace us” during the awful white nationalist demonstrations in Charlottesville would find in Trump’s comment confirmation that he is with them. He expressed a similar sentiment during the Charlottesville crisis when he noted there were “very fine people” among those who carried torches and shouted the Nazi slogan “blood and soil”Trump’s comments are of a piece with the white identity strategy he seems to be employing in his bid for reelection. With his brutal approach to immigration, references to “shithole” countries in Africa, and his consistent attacks on black and brown members of Congress — like his recent, and repeated, public disparagement of Muslim-American Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib — Trump plays on white anxieties about a future when they are no longer part of a racial or ethnic majority.The big problem with Trump’s callous and destructive abuse of his office is that it requires regular renewal, intensification and amplification. Renewal comes when he simply repeats an ugly claim to remind us where he stands. Intensification comes when he raises the stakes to make sure he gets the attention he wants. Amplification comes when he adds a new group — in this case American Jews — to his hit parade of hatred. With three techniques he keeps drawing attention to himself, and away from serious problems.It’s difficult to say where all this will lead. The only certainty is that Trump will continue along this line. Proof came less than 24 hours after his Oval Office disgrace when he retweeted a notorious conspiracy theorist’s claim that Israelis regard Trump as “the second coming of God.”Jews do not believe in a concept like the “second coming,” but conservative evangelicals who largely support Trump do. The statement exploits their religious and emotional attachment to Israel in the crudest possible way. Of course, Trump endorsed it.
The president cannot be absolved of responsibility for inciting the hatreds that led to El Paso.
Connor Betts, the alleged Dayton shooter, had left-wing political views, believed in socialism, supported Elizabeth Warren’s candidacy, and regularly inveighed on Twitter against various personages on the right (including, it turns out, me). This has some conservatives fuming that liberal media is conveniently ignoring the progressive ideology of one shooter while obsessing over the far-right ideology of another — Patrick Crusius, who posted an anti-immigrant manifesto shortly before police say he murdered 22 people at a Walmart in El Paso.
Sorry, but the comparison doesn’t wash. It’s idiotic.
The Dayton victims did not fit any political or ethnic profile: They were black and white, male and female, an immigrant from Eritrea and Betts’s own sister. Crusius’s victims, overwhelmingly Hispanic, did: They were the objects of his expressly stated political rage.
What happened in Ohio was a mass shooting in the mold of the Las Vegas massacre: victims at random, motives unknown. What happened in Texas was racist terrorism in the mold of Oslo, Charleston, Pittsburgh, Christchurch and Poway.
The former attack vaguely implicates the “dark psychic force” that Marianne Williamson spoke of in last week’s Democratic debates. The latter directly implicates the immigrant-bashing xenophobic right led by Donald Trump.This needs to be said not because it isn’t obvious, but because too many conservatives have tried to deny the obvious
The president cannot be absolved of responsibility for inciting the hatreds that led to El Paso.
. It’s not about ideology, they say: It’s a mental-health issue. But that’s precisely the kind of evasive reasoning many of those conservatives mockedin 2016, when the mental state and sexual orientation of Orlando nightclub shooter Omar Mateen was raised by some media voices to suggest that his attack had not really been an act of Islamist terrorism.
Alternatively, conservatives have cited the decline of civil society, the effects of the de-institutionalization of the mentally ill, the paucity of prayer and the ubiquity of violent video games — in sum, the breakdown of “the culture” — as explanations for mass shootings. This is the right-wing equivalent of the left’s idea that poverty and climate change are at the root of terrorism: causes so general that they explain everything, hence nothing. Why not also blame Friedrich Nietzsche and the death of God?
Get real: The right’s attempt to downplay the specifically ideological context of the El Paso massacre is a transparently self-serving attempt to absolve the president of moral responsibility for his demagogic rhetoric. This, too, shouldn’t wash. The president is guilty, in a broad sense, of a form of incitement.
No, Trump did not specifically incite anyone to violence, as characters like Yasir Arafat once did. (“To Jerusalem we march, martyrs by the millions!”) He will not, as Palestinian leaders still do, offer financial rewards to the families of terrorists. His scripted condemnation on Monday of white supremacy was, at least, a condemnation.
But incitement takes many forms. In June 2018, Trump tweeted the following: “Democrats are the problem. They don’t care about crime and want illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be, to pour into and infest our Country, like MS-13. They can’t win on their terrible policies, so they view them as potential voters!”
The tweet (noted by my colleague Frank Bruni in a recent column) is significant precisely because it is almost forgotten. It does not even rank in a top 10 list of Trumpian outrages. And yet it’s all there:
- The imputation of bad faith to his political opponents.
- The conspiracy theory about “potential voters.”
- The sneaking conflation of illegal immigrants with violent gang members.
And the language of infestation. In the early 1990s, Hutu propagandists in Rwanda spoke of the Tutsi as “cockroaches.” The word served as a preamble to the 1994 genocide in which over half a million people died. In today’s America, the dissemination of the idea, via the bully pulpit of the presidency, that we are not merely being strained or challenged by illegal immigrants, but invaded and infested, predicated the slaughter in El Paso.
It’s worth noting that the Walmart massacre is, as far as I know, the first large scale anti-Hispanic terrorist attack in the United States in living memory. On current trend, it will surely not be the last or the worst. The language of infestation inevitably suggests the “solution” of extermination. As for the cliché that sensible people are supposed to take Trump seriously but not literally, it looks like Patrick Crusius didn’t get that memo.
The main task for Democrats over the next 15 months won’t be to convince America that they need yet another health care re-invention, or that the economy is a mess, or that the system is rigged, or that the right response to Trump’s immigration demagoguery is an open border. It’s that the president is
- a disgrace to his office,
- an insult to our dignity,
- a threat to our Union, and
- a danger to our safety.
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.
CNN’s Anderson Cooper says House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s comment that she believes that President Donald Trump is engaging in a “cover-up,” is getting under Trump’s skin.