Why anyone in the United States would have expressed surprise that President Trump failed to have appropriate words to offer a Gold Star widow is beyond me. We have now heard him attempt to console the entire nation on camera several times. Why would anyone think that in private he might do better?
One of the unpleasant but honorable tasks of the presidency is to try to put words to tragedy, to bind up the nation’s wounds and tend to the widow and the orphan. (Those are also a president’s words; not Trump’s, though.) Trump so far seems capable of only two types of response: racially tinged name-calling and a sort of woolly pablum where he speaks about love and light and prayer and keeps thinking that the sentence on the teleprompter is over before it has in fact ended. (“Melania and I are praying for every American who has been hurt, wounded, or lost . . . the ones they love so dearly.”)
To see a president so clearly reconciled to mass murder as a routine occurrence that the speeches are barely differentiated feels like salt in the wound. It is bad enough to hear Congress (on one side of the aisle, at least) gathering to say that there is Nothing That Can Be Done About Evil in the World. But Trump’s usual lack of nuance strips away pretense from many things we Say for the Sake of Saying Them: He cannot even manage to say them right.
In the face of what appears to be Islamic State-inspired terrorism, Trump shows rage. He denounces the perpetrator as a “Degenerate Animal” and vows a legislative response. “We want to IMMEDIATELY work with Congress on the diversity lottery . . . and we want to get rid of chain migration!” to stop “this man that came in, or whatever you want to call him,” he bellows. “We have to get much tougher, we have to get much smarter, and we have to get much less politically correct. We’re so politically correct that we’re afraid to do anything.” No need for dog-whistles; he has a doghorn (that is like a foghorn, but for dogs).
But Trump’s speeches in the wake of domestic gun violence by white men could not be mistaken for the words of someone who intends to try to do anything whatsoever about the problem. After events such as Sunday’s shooting at First Baptist Church outside San Antonio, he offers only a sort of bafflement at the existence of evil in the world and a mouthing of platitudes about a day when violence will no longer exist.
“This act of evil occurred as the victims and their families were in their place of sacred worship. … Our hearts are broken, but in dark times, and these are dark times, such as these, Americans do what they do best. We pull together. We join hands, we lock arms, and through the tears and through the sadness, we stand strong. Oh so strong.”
This is meaningless.
Trump’s speeches always have the quality of someone misremembering the lyrics to a country song. But it is not just that they are bad (although they are bad). It is that they are empty.
Even Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) was able to find a moment of heroism to latch onto when describing the tragedy to reporters. Trump barely even bothered with details. Not the name of the church. Not even the name of a Brave Individual. There was not even a real remembrance of the victims. Only, “We will never ever leave their side. Ever.” Whose side? Why would we expect him to recall anyone’s name? He could reuse this speech. He probably will.
After Las Vegas, Trump said, “Though we feel such great anger at the senseless murder of our fellow citizens, it is our love that defines us today, and always will, forever. In times such as these, I know we are searching for some kind of meaning in the chaos, some kind of light in the darkness. The answers do not come easy. But we can take solace knowing that even the darkest space can be brightened by a single light, and even the most terrible despair can be illuminated by a single ray of hope. … We pray for the entire nation to find unity and peace. And we pray for the day when evil is banished and the innocent are safe from hatred and from fear.”
He would be better off saying nothing. That is all this amounts to, anyway.