With the nation in shock and so many Americans feeling a sense of despair and helplessness, the president’s language was prepared to fit the moment. He has been given appropriate words at other times in his presidency, which he has read from a teleprompter, often with only minimal emotion. It is what presidents are expected to do. What this president does before and after those moments is the real issue.
Absent from the president’s remarks Monday was any note of self-reflection. He did not acknowledge even in the slightest that presidential language and presidential leadership help to set a tone, for good or ill. In decrying white supremacy, he did not suggest that, in any way, he has given aid and comfort to those who preach hatred or even violence against immigrants or people of color.
That is why there can be no sense of confidence that the weekend rampages of gun violence will cause a change in the president’s behavior. In fact, everything suggests there will be no change at all. His default position as a politician is to divide and incite, not to unite and inspire. In nearly three years as president, he has yet to make any consistent effort to speak beyond the constituency that elected him. That is what makes him different from other presidents.
When he has been required to play the role of healer-in-chief, as all presidents have, he has soon after reverted to form. Everyone does, which is why each moment of terror from random gunshots in a public place produces a temporary call for action that is ignored. But politicians, especially presidents, carry an extra burden. One pattern of the Trump presidency has been to overcorrect, to undo the good words by later lashing out at perceived opponents or critics when he has not gotten the praise he expects.
The mix of racism, madness and political impotence has created a toxic combination that has infected the politics of the country. No one expects a magical answer to the multiple causes of mass shootings, but the absence even of real efforts to address the conditions and causes has led to the outrage and numbness felt so widely at a moment like now.
“Do something!” a citizen in Dayton shouted at Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) on Sunday. The audience quickly joined in, chanting in unison for action, not words. This was a cry of anguish and frustration from a citizenry that has lost faith in its political leaders, political leaders who have mastered the art of offering comfort but little more, as the carnage from gun violence continues to spread.
The president spent much of Monday on Twitter, pledging that the victims of the shootings and their loved ones would not be forgotten, highlighting his call for the death penalty for those convicted of mass murder or of hate crimes and holding the media responsible for contributing to a culture of violence, claiming that “Fake News” is the cause of it.
That he would start down the road of finger-pointing before he had even made his public comments highlights the conflict between the need to rise to the moment presidentially and continuing to carry on the fights and grievances that animate him and his followers.
More telling in the coming weeks and months will be how he conducts himself at his campaign rallies. Will he stoke the audiences as he has in the past? Will he stand by as those audiences issue chants of “lock her up” or “send her back”? Politics as practiced today can be a harsh and unforgiving profession and the campaign ahead likely will be brutally fought. Will the president inflame or will he, as a result of this moment, make some turn in the other direction?
The president is not directly responsible for the weekend shootings. The shooters are. It would be fruitless to make this all about the president, however easy that would be for some. Something bigger has caused this epidemic of gun violence, something deeply rooted in society. America has been a gun-loving nation for centuries.
But the shooters also have enablers, indirectly or directly. Something has brought the anger closer to the surface of late, something that has allowed those with hatred in their hearts, and no doubt some mental problems as well, to take deadly action against innocent people.
The president hinted Monday at a political trade with Democrats as a path to action — tougher background checks for gun purchases coupled with changes in immigration. But in his address from the White House, he made no mention of new gun legislation.
As outlined in his tweet, the proposed deal is a nonstarter. The shooters were both homegrown and one seemed to share the president’s views on immigration. Over many months, Trump has warned of an “invasion” of migrants across the southern border. In a screed posted just before the shootings in El Paso — which officials believe belonged to the alleged killer, though they are continuing to investigate — the attack was described as a response to “the Hispanic invasion of Texas.”
Even if the president were prepared to push hard for new gun legislation, there is no guarantee of success. Former president Barack Obama tried to do so after 26 people, including 20 children, were massacred at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in December 2012, but didn’t succeed. Nor did the killings of 17 students and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., in February 2018 lead to action.
If those innocent lost lives, along with all the others on the roster of the other recent and horrific mass shootings, were not enough to spur action, the likelihood of something different happening this time is limited.
What might be possible, however, is something that would push back against the rise of white supremacy that is evident and that law enforcement and domestic security experts have identified as a growing threat.
The president called for exactly that on Monday morning.
“In one voice, our nation must condemn racism, bigotry, and white supremacy,” he said. “These sinister ideologies must be defeated.”
He has now set a marker for himself and the duration of his presidency, a standard he has yet to meet in office.