New York Times columnist David Brooks and Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart join Amna Nawaz to discuss the week’s political news, including whether there will be real momentum in Congress to enact stronger gun legislation, how President Trump conducted himself visiting shooting victims in El Paso and Dayton and what white supremacy means for our American national identity.
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.
The white supremacist terrorists and the white supremacist policymakers share the same mission.
Be warned: There is nothing soothing and uplifting in this column. I will not somberly mourn and point to our better angel and American resilience. This is not that kind of column.
I have a warning to deliver, a truth to tell, and it is as unsettling as it is obvious.
First, let’s start with the carnage that has unfolded over the last few days.
On July 28, a 19-year-old white man named Santino William Legan opened fire at a garlic festival in Gilroy, Calif., killing three people and injuring 13 others before taking his own life.
As the Daily Beast reported, just before the shooting Legan “posted a picture with a caption that told followers to read a 19th-century, proto-fascist book.” As the site explained:
“The book, which is repeatedly recommended alongside works by Hitler and other fascists on forums like 8chan, is full of anti-Semitic, sexist and white supremacist ideology. The book glorifies ‘Aryan’ men, condemns intermarriage between races, and defends violence based on bogus eugenicist tropes.”
As The New York Times reported, “Nineteen minutes before the first 911 call” about the shooting at the Walmart, “a hate-filled, anti-immigrant manifesto appeared online.” CNN reports that authorities are investigating the racist screed which “police believe” was posted by Crusius.
The manifesto is heavily anti-immigrant and anti-Hispanic. It’s riddled with the fear of white “displacement” and fear that changing demographics will favor Democrats and turn America into “a one party-state.”
And then on Sunday, a 24-year-old man named Connor Betts opened fire in Dayton, Ohio, killing nine people and injuring at least 27 others. Most of those killed were black.
Are these shootings a gun control issue? Of course. We have too many guns, and too many high-capacity guns. We sell guns first designed for soldiers to civilians. We don’t do enough to keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them and we do next to nothing to track guns once they are sold.
But, I think laying all the blame at their feet is too convenient and simplistic.
I think a better way to look at it is to understand that white nationalist terrorists — young and rash — and white nationalist policymakers — older and more methodical — live on parallel planes, both aiming in the same direction, both with the same goal: To maintain and ensure white dominance and white supremacy.
The policymakers believe they can accomplish with legislation in the legal system what the terrorists are trying to underscore with lead. In the minds of the policymakers, border walls, anti-immigrant laws, voter suppression and packing the courts are more prudent and permanent than bodies in the streets. But, try telling that to a young white terrorist who distrusts everyone in Washington.
As the writer of the El Paso manifesto points out, “The Republican Party is also terrible.” The writer goes on to explain:
“Many factions within the Republican Party are pro-corporation. Pro-corporation = pro-immigration. But some factions within the Republican Party don’t prioritize corporations over our future. So the Democrats are nearly unanimous with their support of immigration while the Republicans are divided over it. At least with Republicans, the process of mass immigration and citizenship can be greatly reduced.”
This is a reason these groups are often at odds. The white nationalist policymakers are annoyed and even incensed by the terrorists because they believe they besmirch the mission.
These terrorists want to do quickly what the policymakers insist must be done slowly, so the terrorists stew in their anger.
They are angry at immigrants because their numbers are ascendant — through both immigration and higher birthrates — and, those immigrants threaten an even more accelerated displacement of white people from a numerical majority.
They are angry at black people for even existing.
It is not lost on me that this summer is the 100th anniversary of the “Red Summer,” when violent anti-black white supremacists rioted in cities across the country, killing many, just as the Great Migration — the mass migration of millions of black people mostly from the rural South to the urban North — was getting underway. Violence is the way the white terrorists respond to demographic shifts and demographic threat.
It’s not simply a matter of whether Trump’s rhetoric, or that of any other politician, led these shooters to do what they did. Maybe. It is also about recognizing that all of these people are on the same team and share the same mission and eat from the same philosophical trough. It’s just that their methods differ. The white supremacist terrorists and the white supremacist policymakers are bound at the hip.