The debate over whether or not President Trump encouraged the man who allegedly set out to kill Jews at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh really isn’t a debate at all. It’s a shouting match.
“Yes, he did!”
“No, he didn’t!”
It will only make things worse, as each side grows increasingly deaf to its own heated rhetoric and ever more furious at the other’s.
Here’s a better question: Is Trump helping? The answer, obviously, is no.
Let us stipulate that the pro-Israel father of Ivanka Trump, who converted to Judaism when she married Jared Kushner, is not literally Hitler.
But let’s also stipulate that there’s something about Trump and his MAGA nationalism that’s been, and remains, very attractive to bigots. This doesn’t mean that everyone who jumped aboard the Trump train is a bigot. Far from it. But it is simply true that some who did are bigots, and that Trump and his team have been unconcerned about this fact.
I have some personal experience here. When the alt-right first rallied around Trump, starting in 2015, I was one of their targets. I was besieged with anti-Semitic filth. I ranked sixth on the Anti-Defamation League’s list of targeted Jewish journalists. Once, when I mentioned that my brother had died, I was pelted with “jokes” asking if he’d been turned into soap or a lampshade.
While the attacks shocked me, I was more dismayed by how little so many of my fellow conservatives seemed to care about the phenomenon. This was back when Steve Bannon — who would later become the Trump campaign’s CEO and, eventually, the president’s senior advisor — still wanted to turn Breitbart.com into the platform for the alt-right.
The best defense of Trump at the time was ignorance and, ironically, bigotry — toward Republicans. A lifelong New York Democrat, Trump had no real understanding of what traditional conservatives and Republicans believed.
In 2000, when he vied for the Reform Party’s presidential nomination, he said he was trying to keep bigots from taking over the party. “He's obviously been having a love affair with Adolf Hitler,” he said of his opponent Pat Buchanan. Trump’s dream running mate: Oprah.
In 2016, after years of attracting support for his birtherism, he still believed many of the liberal stereotypes of the GOP as a hothouse of bigotry. Hence his reluctance to repudiate David Duke. Trump let Putin’s and the alt-right’s troll armies fight in his name; he thought he needed them.
Trump is even more ignorant about how to be presidential. He’s the first president who doesn’t even know how to pretend to be a unifying figure, at least for longer than it takes to read a statement off a teleprompter.
Instead, he’s enraptured by the rapture of his base, feeding them red meat, dog whistles and wedge issues — anything to keep the attention on him. He often states that it would be “so easy to be presidential,” but, as he said at a rally in March, “you’d all be out of here right now, you’d be so bored.”
All of this has had a transformative effect on Trump, on his base — and on his opponents. Trump long resisted calling himself a nationalist. Now he embraces it. The media has gone from being biased (it is), to being “fake” (it’s not), to being the “enemy of the people” and tantamount to a fifth column. Many in the Trumpified right-wing media amplify and reinforce all of this because they, too, are addicted to the same base.
Amid the mail-bomb scare last week, Trump tweeted that it was unfair that CNN can criticize him, “yet when I criticize them, they go wild and scream, ‘It’s just not Presidential!’” The false equivalence is lost on him and on his defenders.
CNN isn’t the president. It’s in a different lane. And while its coverage is worthy of criticism, that coverage shouldn’t be a warrant for Trump to leave his lane.
I don’t think Trump deliberately encouraged this slaughter in Pittsburgh. But every day he fuels a sense of chaos, a feeling that none of the norms or rules need apply anymore. And that is bad enough. It certainly isn’t helping.