The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Hatred and evil’: How Trump follows a familiar script after national tragedies

President Trump delivers a statement on the mass shooting at a South Florida school from the White House on Feb. 15, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Placeholder while article actions load

President Trump’s speech Thursday following a mass shooting at a school in South Florida sounded a lot like many of his previous speeches after a shooting. It mirrored in some ways the speeches of previous presidents who used American civil religion — religious language for a political order — to frame their responses as well.

Quoting scripture as he has in the past, Trump drew from the biblical passage of 2 Kings 20:5, saying: “In these moments of heartache and darkness, we hold onto God’s word in Scripture. ‘I have heard your prayer and seen your tears. I will heal you.’ We trust in that promise and we hold fast to our fellow Americans in their time of sorrow.”

The word that comes up over and over again in his speeches is “evil.”

“In times of tragedy, the bonds that sustain us are those of family, faith, community and country,” Trump said. “These bonds are stronger than the forces of hatred and evil, and these bonds grow even stronger in the hours of our greatest need.”

Trump’s speech mimics a long American tradition of using religion to address a national tragedy.

“We expect our president to address evil and calm fears in this way,” said John Fea, a professor of history at Messiah College in Pennsylvania. “There is nothing in the United States Constitution that says the president must do this, but we still expect it from the man or woman who holds the office.”

Trump’s speech on Thursday closely followed a familiar presidential script, according to Daniel K. Williams, a professor of history at the University of West Georgia. The speech showed how Trump, who is unlike his predecessors in so many ways, conformed.

After the Charlottesville protests last year, Williams said, many Americans expected a speech to follow these categories, but Trump got into trouble for not delivering one and instead suggesting that there was blame on “both sides.”

Trump used the word “evil” in his speeches last year after the mass shootings at a church in Sutherland Springs, Tex., and during a concert in Las Vegas.

“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,” Trump said in October after the shooting in Las Vegas.

Trump follows a long line of presidents who have cited “evil” in the face of tragedies. After the mass shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., President Barack Obama called the tragedy an “unconscionable evil” and quoted from 2 Corinthians 4.

“No single law — no set of laws — can eliminate evil from the world, or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society,” he said. “But that can’t be an excuse for inaction. Surely, we can do better than this.”

After the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, President George W. Bush repeatedly described the events as “evil.” And after a mass shooting at Virginia Tech in 2007, Bush quoted scripture. “In times like this, we can find comfort in the grace and guidance of a loving God,” he said. “As the Scriptures tell us, ‘Don’t be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.’”

President Bill Clinton used that same Bible reference after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, saying, “We pledge to do all we can to help you heal the injured, to rebuild this city, and to bring to justice those who did this evil.”

The late sociologist Robert Bellah helped popularize what he called “civil religion” — civic rituals influenced by religion, especially in times of war. Williams said that during national tragedies, presidents follow a long tradition by including some or all of the following:

  1. Draw on moral categories to denounce perpetrators as “evil” and opposed to essential American values.
  2. Promise a tough presidential response, reminding Americans that the president has everything under control but still needs the help of all Americans to face this crisis.
  3. Remind Americans of their essential moral goodness, and appeal to Americans to come together as a community in fighting evil.
  4. Appeal to God as both a moral standard and a protector of the nation who is firmly identified with American values of democracy, freedom and community.

In Thursday’s speech, Williams said, Trump followed his predecessors by “differentiating between good and evil, and by appealing to the moral authority of Scripture and God while also reminding Americans of the essential goodness of the nation and assuring his audience that everything was under control.”