THE MORNING PLUM:
On Thursday, after five people were brutally gunned down in a newsroom in Annapolis, Md., President Trump was repeatedly pressed to comment on the bloodshed and to offer condolences to grieving family members. As he strode across the White House lawn, he said nothing.
This sets up a test going forward for Trump. Will he now refrain from heaping abuse and vitriol on reporters, and from whipping up his supporters into frenzies of rage at them? If the answer is what I expect it to be, this will also implicate one of our biggest debates right now — the one over “civility” and the appropriate ways of expressing political anger at a time when there is a great deal of it.
The gunman appears to have harbored a personal vendetta, and the point here is not that Trumpian rhetoric is to blame. It’s also possible that Trump (who did issue a tweet) will speak adequately to the incident. But at a minimum, it should also dissuade Trump from future attacks on the media, since he should feel an obligation to do all he can to ensure that this grisly horror is not a harbinger of more to come.
The “civility” debate turns on whether certain expressions of anti-Trump anger are justified, and if they are, whether they are nonetheless politically counterproductive. Those expressions include the Red Hen’s refusal to serve the White House press secretary; the public cursing of liberal entertainment personalities; and claims by progressives that Trump’s policies (and his supporters) are racist.
Thomas Edsall argues that throwing around the term “racist” alienates a segment of white voters who aren’t actually racist but are unhappy with current immigration levels and get driven back into Trump’s arms by the slur. And Ross Douthat, while sympathetic to the Red Hen owners, argues that such displays risk alienating moderates who might not think we’re in the midst of a civic emergency, and urges more constructive civil disobedience.
I don’t know how to determine whether these displays actually alienate voters in significant numbers. But even if they do, the question itself seems misdirected. That’s because we cannot seriously debate the “civility” question without placing the role of Trump’s deliberate provocations in causing all the anger front and center.
Trump’s own advisers have explicitly said they see stirring up anger around immigration and race as a political strategy. Stephen Miller called this “constructive controversy — with the purpose of enlightenment.” Stephen K. Bannon enthused that “our thing is to throw gasoline on the resistance.”
To Edsall’s credit, he notes this, observing that Trump’s race-baiting is designed to energize his base and lure liberals into using the “racist” slur, while urging liberals not to fall into that “trap.” But this badly understates the case. Out of a desire to solidify his hold on his base — that is, a shriveled white minority — Trump’s racist provocations are also doing great civic damage to the country and hurting untold numbers of real people.
Trump’s racism is doing enormous damage
Trump pardoned racist sheriff Joe Arpaio after being persuaded it was “a way of pleasing his political base” — but what message does that send to Latinos, given that Arpaio had perpetrated horrible abuses and civil rights violations on Latino immigrants? When Trump refused to unambiguously condemn white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, he chose to stoke racial tensions further — tensions that Bannon flatly declared would help Trump politically — rather than carry out his institutional responsibility to speak as a unifying voice at a moment of searing national tension.
The family separation policy inflicted cruelty on untold numbers of children for the deliberate purpose of dissuading would-be border-crossers — including desperate refugees — in service of a white nationalist policy agenda. In intent and execution, this has nothing in common with any legitimately motivated or designed policy to reduce legal immigration. But Trump, who also regularly dehumanizes undocumented immigrants in horribly ugly ways, reportedly claimed that “my people love it.” We cannot place the real impetus behind these policies off limits for discussion.
Which brings us to Trump’s attacks on journalists. Some reporters tweeted that we damn well better not hear Trump use the words “fake news” again. And we damn well better not hear any more abuse of reporters, either. If Trump does resume these things, the message will be extremely clear: Trump will continue directing his supporters’ rage at the real human beings who do this work, after having seen five of them gunned down, with little sense of any public obligation as possessor of the presidential bully pulpit to do all he can to avoid producing more horrors.
Trump is actively trying to divide the country in all kinds of ways. This is getting a lot of people angry. But that is Trump’s goal. Even if the emotion at times strays out of control in counterproductive ways, let’s get real: This is not the kind of public anger that can easily be managed or channeled, given the scale of the deliberate provocations that are producing it. The “civility” conversation is way out of balance: Its focus needs to be squarely not on the perpetrators of the anger, or the victims of the provocations, but on the real cause-and-effect chain here — and on the terrible toll it is inflicting, one that could grow more horrifying.
* A DEADLY DAY FOR JOURNALISM: Brian Stelter reports that Thursday’s killing of five people at a newspaper in Annapolis is stirring deeper fears:
News of the shooting spree caused a chill in newsrooms across the United States … Law enforcement in several cities stepped up security around major news organizations as a precautionary measure. Threats against members of the media have been on the rise in recent years. But murders of American journalists are very rare.
But as Stelter notes, this was the “deadliest day for journalism in America since 9/11.” I fear that there may be more to come.
* CAMPAIGN TO OVERTURN ROE V. WADE IS UNDERWAY: CNN reports that state-level Republicans who are pushing laws gutting abortion rights at the state level think replacing Kennedy is great news:
Trump’s opportunity to replace … Kennedy, who had voted to uphold Roe in 1992, is “exactly what we had hoped for,” said Jim Carlin, an Iowa Republican state senator. “With [Kennedy] as the swing vote, I don’t know that we would have had the capital on the Supreme Court to reverse Roe v. Wade,” Carlin said. “If we were to get another conservative justice to the bench at the Supreme Court, I think our chances are much, much higher.”
Democratic groups hoping to block Kennedy’s replacement will emphasize that a more conservative court will unleash a flood of state laws gutting abortion rights, for this very purpose.
* EXPERTS FEAR TRUMP’S MEETING WITH PUTIN: The New York Times reports that foreign policy experts worry Trump will give away too much in his meeting with Vladimir Putin, in a rerun of his chumminess with Kim Jong Un:
What these … leaders have in common is that they are autocrats, whom Mr. Trump admires and believes he can win over with a brand of personal diplomacy that dispenses with briefing papers or talking points and relies instead on a combination of flattery, cajolery and improvisation. … lifting sanctions on Moscow would cause another rift with European allies already bruised by Mr. Trump.
Another problem is that Trump may well see angering European allies as a feature, not a bug, of any rapprochement with Putin.
* DEMOCRATIC SENATOR CALLS FOR ABOLISHING ICE: Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand becomes the first senator to go there:
This is slowly going to become a litmus test issue for 2020 Democratic presidential candidates.
* HARLEY STORY SIGNALS TRUMP ‘WEAKNESS’: Trump has threatened Harley-Davidson for announcing that it will shift production overseas due to Trump’s tariffs. Paul Krugman says this signals Trump’s weakness in coming trade wars:
It’s an indication of the hysterical reactions we can expect from the Trump crew as the downsides of their policies start to become apparent — hysteria that other countries will surely see as evidence of Trump’s fundamental weakness. … Imagine that you’re Xi Jinping … Surely the spectacle inclines you to take a hard line: If such a small pinprick upsets Trump so much, the odds are pretty good that he’ll blink in the face of real confrontation.
Trump’s rage over this “slight” also signals that he won’t want to back down even if, or especially if, retaliatory tariffs start doing serious damage here.
* AND OBAMA URGES DEMOCRATS TO VOTE: A handful of reporters were permitted to watch Barack Obama speak at a fundraiser, and here’s the key point he made:
“Do not wait for the perfect message, don’t wait to feel a tingle in your spine because you’re expecting politicians to be so inspiring and poetic and moving that somehow, ‘OK, I’ll get off my couch after all and go spend the 15-20 minutes it takes for me to vote,.’ …. Because that’s part of what happened in the last election. I heard that too much. … If we don’t vote, then this democracy doesn’t work.”
Trump’s horrors will of course galvanize a lot of Democratic voters, but we can’t count on that being enough.
(Update: I removed the item on Anthony Kennedy and his son, because in retrospect, I think it was ill-considered and not newsworthy.)