The spectre of terror is haunting the US. On 27 October, 11 Jews were gunned down inside a synagogue in Pittsburgh. Their alleged killer? A neo-Nazi who yelled “All Jews must die” before opening fire.
Three days earlier, two black people were murdered at a grocery store in Kentucky. Their alleged killer? A man who shot them both in cold blood but then spared the life of a white shopper because “whites don’t shoot whites”.
Fourteen pipe bombs have been mailed to the nation’s top Democrats, high-profile critics of the White House and CNN. Their alleged sender? An ardent supporter of Donald Trump, who plastered his van with stickers supporting the President.
These three suspects were not black or brown. Nor were they Mexicans or Muslims. They would not have been deterred by a travel ban or a border wall either. Because these were domestic far-right extremists, born and raised in the United States. Like Trump, the alleged synagogue shooter was obsessed with the idea of “globalist” Jews bringing Mexican immigrants and Muslim terrorists into the country. Like Trump, the alleged mail bomber, according to the Washington Post, “trafficked conspiracy theories and ranted about liberal billionaire George Soros, Barack Obama, former Hillary Clinton and others whose politics were out of line with his.”
So what was the response of the President of the United States to these attacks? Any contrition, or regret for demonising minority groups? For pushing racist conspiracy theories or bragging about being a “nationalist”? How about a promise to dial down his inflammatory rhetoric? Don’t. Be. Silly.
Trump has done the exact opposite. As he told reporters on 26 October, who asked him whether he would “tone down” his harsh language in advance of the midterm elections on 6 November, “Well, I think I’ve been toned down, if you want to know the truth. I could really tone it up.”
Shamelessly, recklessly and astonishingly, “tone it up” he has. On the Monday morning that followed the attacks, Trump took to Twitter to repeat the smear that the “fraudulent” and “Fake News Media” are “the true Enemy of the People”. How is this not incitement to further violence against CNN and other US news organisations?
Given Tom Steyer and George Soros, billionaire donors to liberal and Democratic Party causes, were also targets of the mail bomber, you might think Trump would take a break from bashing them. You’d be wrong. On 26 October, Trump laughed as a group of his supporters at the White House chanted “lock him up” in reference to Soros – and even repeated the line himself. Two days later, he dismissed Steyer as a “crazed & stumbling lunatic”. Again, how is this not incitement?
On 29 October, just five days after the double murder in Kentucky, Trump decided to target Andrew Gillum, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate in Florida who could become the state’s first ever African-American governor. The president called Gillum a “thief” while highlighting the white Republican candidate’s Ivy League education. How is this not a dog-whistle to racists? As Slate’s Jamelle Bouie tweeted, Trump “went just short of warning floridians that andrew gillum was black”.
Given the alleged shooter in Pittsburgh had accused a Jewish group that resettles refugees of bringing “invaders in that kill our people”, you might think that the president would take a pause from fanning the flames of anti-immigrant bigotry. You’d be wrong. On the morning of 29 October, less than 48 hours after the murder of those 11 Jewish worshippers, Trump tweeted: “Many Gang Members and some very bad people are mixed into the Caravan heading to our Southern Border. Please go back, you will not be admitted into the United States unless you go through the legal process. This is an invasion of our Country and our Military is waiting for you!”
“Gang members.” “Bad people.” “Invasion.” It is difficult to tell whether Trump is borrowing the rhetoric of white nationalists or whether they’re borrowing his.
It has been more than three years since the former reality TV star announced his candidacy for president. I thought I had become numb, immune even, to the sheer offensiveness and ridiculousness of his loud assertions. This, remember, is a president who praised neo-Nazis in Charlottesville as “very fine people”, called Mexican immigrants “rapists”, compared Syrian refugees to “snakes” and dismissed African countries as “shitholes”.
Yet, still, he retains the capacity to shock. Despite the blood that’s been spilled, he continues to recklessly rail against “globalists”; he continues to cynically obsess over a migrant caravan hundreds of miles from the US border; he continues to take cheap shots at both black politicians and journalists.
Compare and contrast Trump’s behaviour with that of his two immediate predecessors. On 15 September 2001, four days after the worst terrorist attacks in US history, George W. Bush went to a mosque in Washington D.C. to declare “Islam is peace” and demand that Muslim Americans “be treated with respect”. On 26 June 2015, just over a week after white supremacist Dylann Roof murdered nine black worshippers in a church in Charleston, Obama spoke at the funeral of the dead pastor and sang “Amazing Grace”.
In times of national crisis or tragedy, US presidents are called upon to unify the country; to heal the wounds of division and hate. To varying degrees, every modern president has succeeded at this most basic yet vital of presidential tasks. Even boorish and ill-qualified commanders-in-chief, such as Bush, have risen to the occasion.
But, no, not Trump. His response to the recent violence and terror has been to ramp up his incendiary rhetoric and escalate division and discord; to pour fuel on the flames of white nationalism by encouraging anti-migrant hysteria. Whether or not he is responsible for these latest attacks is perhaps besides the point. The way he has reacted to them means he is unquestionably responsible for the next one.