If President Trump were a different — and better — man, he would have reacted to the sickening slaughter of 11 congregants at a Pittsburgh synagogue by engaging in some sober self-examination and refraining from incendiary comments that might energize other violent extremists.
After all, Robert D. Bowers, a virulent anti-Semite who is accused of Saturday’s rampage at the Tree of Life Synagogue, reportedly was angry about a so-called caravan of Central American migrants heading for the U.S. border — which Trump, Fox News and others have been harping on incessantly in recent weeks as the midterm elections approach. Trump has claimed, without presenting any evidence, that the caravan is harboring gang members and Middle Eastern terrorists; guests on Fox News and others have suggested that the caravan is being funded or organized by George Soros, a philanthropist and Jewish survivor of the Holocaust.
Trump rightly denounced the massacre in Pittsburgh as a “wicked act of mass murder” (after suggesting dubiously that “the results would have been far better” if the synagogue had employed an armed guard). But there is no sign that he has developed any second thoughts about his divisive and dishonest rhetoric. On Monday, Trump was already back at it, saying that “some very bad people” are heading to “to our Southern Border.” He even referred to “an invasion of the country.” Never mind that a similar distortion of reality had apparently just animated a mass murderer; the president refuses to connect the dots.
Trump responded with similar nonchalance last week to the arrest of Cesar Sayoc Jr., one of his supporters who is accused of sending explosive devices to more than a dozen opponents or critics of the president, including former President Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton (or “Crooked Hillary,” as Trump calls her), Rep. Maxine Walters and hedge-fund billionaire Tom Steyer, who has been campaigning for Trump’s impeachment. Trump praised law enforcement for apprehending Sayoc, but rejected the suggestion that his own behavior was in any way to blame for the bombs sent to a Who’s Who of his critics. (As for Steyer, the president on Sunday described him on Twitter as “a crazed & stumbling lunatic.”)
So who, other than the perpetrators themselves, is responsible for what Trump on Sunday called “the division and hatred that has been going on for so long in our Country”? You guessed it: the news media. According to Trump, their “fake and dishonest reporting . . . is causing problems far greater than they understand.” On Monday the president tweeted: “The Fake News Media, the true Enemy of the People, must stop the open & obvious hostility & report the news accurately & fairly. That will do much to put out the flame of Anger and Outrage and we will then be able to bring all sides together in Peace and Harmony.”
It’s not surprising that the president would seek to deflect responsibility for the “anger and outrage” he himself has kindled with his demonization of Mexicans, Muslims, refugees, asylum seekers and his critics and political opponents. Nor is it surprising that he would blame the media. Undermining legitimate news reporting, contradicting established facts, branding reporters as liars, devaluing verifiable truth — these are by now the familiar tactics of a man who is as incapable of introspection as he is of uniting the country at a time of trauma. He is by his very nature a divider, a pugilist, a blamer of others. His instinct, even in a moment of national mourning, is to attack his perceived enemies and double down on his most divisive pronouncements.
Obviously the primary responsibility for acts of violence and terrorism belongs with those who commit the crimes. No one can argue that either Bowers or Sayoc acted as Trump’s agent. (Bowers apparently thinks that Trump is “a globalist, not a nationalist” who is in the thrall of Jewish advisors.) As we suggested in a previous editorial, even Trump’s most ugly, provocative and inaccurate comments fall far short of the criminal standard for incitement to violence.
Even so, violence is the predictable result of comments that fuel the violent fantasies and irrational hatreds of unstable individuals; it is the foreseeable outcome of our increasingly toxic politics.