Opinion writer

The deadly consequences of President Trump’s incessant stoking of white nationalism and his utter inability to even fake his way through the motions of being a national leader have been on stomach-turning display this week.

The Post reports on Trump’s uncanny ability to stir animosity and divisiveness and to sullen moments of national grief:

By the time the president had left Dayton, he was back on Twitter and sniping at Democrats, a tirade triggered by his consumption of cable television news aboard Air Force One.

“Watching Sleepy Joe Biden making a speech. Sooo Boring! The LameStream Media will die in the ratings and clicks with this guy,” the president wrote.

Then he lashed out at [Sen. Sherrod] Brown and [Dayton Mayor Nan] Whaley, falsely accusing them of “totally misrepresenting” the reception he received at Miami Valley Hospital. He alleged that their news conference immediately after the president’s visit “was a fraud.”


Whaley and Brown were dumbfounded by Trump’s response (since they hadn’t criticized his conduct at the hospital). While Trump hid from reporters and did not venture out for public events in either city, “Whaley said he would not have been welcome in the Oregon district, where scores of demonstrators congregated, holding anti-Trump signs and chanting, “Do something!” a call for stricter gun laws.”

While the calamities could not be more different in size and impetus, the dual shootings may come to resemble not other shootings such as Sandy Hook but hurricane Katrina. Let me explain.

Katrina, for George W. Bush, was the deathblow to his presidency, well before the financial crash. The coverage was unrelentingly terrible, the response too slow and his tone (“Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job”) infuriating to those who thought the federal government was indifferent to the black residents of New Orleans. Whatever he did to support rebuilding and to demonstrate concern, the rest of his presidency was haunted by the image of him looking out the airplane window at the decimated city.

Fast forward to 2019, Trump’s obnoxious tone, partisan sniping and inability to embrace the cities in mourning may well have a similar impact on the electorate, whittling down his support to the true die-hards. If there is not a single image to encapsulate Trump’s failure, there is video of his smile in reaction to a supporter’s call at a Florida rally to “shoot them” (refugees); there are thousands of ads stoking fear of an “invasion” as well as all those angry, dehumanizing tweets.

Trump’s cult members are already grasping at straws to make him a victim or to create a moral equivalence between himself and Democrats (on the grounds that the Dayton shooter, whose motive is unknown, followed left-wing social media). The pathetic excuse-mongering only underscores the problem: Trump fanned the white-nationalist ideology, refused to recognize it as a problem and cut funding for fighting domestic terror. If voters come to believe that Trump is not only a racist but also a racist who provokes terrorists, his presidency will be unrescuable.

Meanwhile, we saw four presidential candidates — Beto O’Rourke in El Paso; former vice president Joe Biden in a moving speech in Iowa; Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) in a speech in Charleston, S.C.; and Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) in one TV appearance after another — remind us of what a president can bring to a country in turmoil and grief. We do not elect policy papers nor award the presidency as a prize for the wonkiest candidate. We elect a person, a symbol of the country and a person we want to have in our living room and on our social media for four years.

Unlike campaigns for any other office, a successful presidential campaign uniquely requires emotional connection, inspiration and even some poetry. The candidates who metaphorically embraced the families, the survivors and the rest of us this week understood that we want to hear a president talk from the heart and provide comfort in times of grief.

While other candidates acknowledged the tragedy, made a pitch for gun safety and railed at the president, these four were the only ones, albeit temporarily, to inhabit the presidential role. It was an audition essentially, and voters may very well decide one of them is the emotional and intellectual antidote to Trump’s meanness, bullying, lying and racism. Any of them surely would be a vast improvement.

Read more:

Jennifer Rubin: Joe Biden’s speech in Iowa puts Trump to shame

The Post’s View: Trump should vow never again to spew his loathing from the bully pulpit

Jonathan Capehart: Joe Biden reminded all of us of what a presidential president would sound like

39 Latino leaders: Hispanics in America are under attack

George F. Will: Trump doesn’t just pollute the social environment with hate. He is the environment.

Ed Rogers: Political posturing in the El Paso aftermath is a sorry spectacle