It used to be an American ritual, like the State of the Union address only grimmer and far more frequent. Shots would ring out: at a movie theater, a nightclub, a church, a school, a school, a school. Bodies would be counted. And then, not too long after, President Obama would speak. Sometimes, he would cry.
Although I served as a White House speechwriter from 2011 to 2016, I never crafted one of these somber addresses. The president worked on them with the most senior members of his team in the West Wing; I was in the Executive Office Building across the street. But as I watched successive drafts appear in my inbox, I saw how much effort went into them. The reams of research, sometimes done in mere hours, that gave the president the chance to say something personal about each victim. The diligent search for a piece of scripture that could express grief, faith and resilience all at once. Above all, how to grapple with a reality unique to the United States. This had happened so often before. It would happen so often again.
I was lucky to work with and for extraordinary writers, on behalf of an extraordinary speaker. Some of Obama’s most moving speeches were delivered as consoler in chief. But in low, doubting moments, I wondered whether these remarks were necessary, or even helpful. Why should the president insist on speaking clearly, forcefully and without hesitation when Congress refuses to act?
Now I think I know the answer.
President Trump certainly cannot be accused of paying too much attention to mass shootings, and yet they continue: at an outdoor concert, an airport, a church, a school, a school, a school. Each time, the president’s first instinct has been to respond with what can best be described as aggressive silence. After 17 students and teachers were killed at a Florida high school on Wednesday, the White House canceled the daily press briefing and @realDonaldTrump tweeted condolences in a rote style that sounded suspiciously like that of his staff. His follow-up tweet, a more personal one, had absolutely nothing to say about the dead and injured.
Thursday morning, after it became clear that silence was politically unsustainable, Trump finally delivered a statement on the shooting. His rhetoric was perfectly fine. Still, I couldn’t help but recall a time when it didn’t take a brewing PR crisis to motivate the president to address the public. And as I remembered my previous skepticism, I found myself missing a genuine consoler in chief.
Keep in mind that Trump is capable of immediate empathy, or at least of displaying it. When an American citizen is killed by an undocumented immigrant or a Muslim commits an act of terrorism, Trump needs no prodding to stand in solidarity with victims. Nor should he. That’s part of a president’s job.
But Trump’s empathy is selective. If an American family’s heartbreak doesn’t dovetail with his political agenda or threaten his approval ratings, he doesn’t appear to feel their pain. This behavior isn’t just callous. It’s dangerous. The commander in chief is responsible for protecting all of us, regardless of background. In Trump’s accounting, whose lives matter? Whose deaths warrant grief? To a terrifying degree, the answer seems to be driven by politics. Just consider his response to a hurricane in Puerto Rico, or the parents of a Muslim soldier killed in Iraq, or the widow of an African American soldier killed in Niger.
If an American family’s heartbreak doesn’t dovetail with his political agenda or threaten his approval ratings, Trump doesn’t appear to feel their pain.
Perhaps following the example of the National Rifle Assn. — a strong supporter in the Republican primaries — Trump at first ignored Wednesday’s shooting and hoped the story would go away. And yet even this description may be too charitable. As a candidate, Trump promised that he alone could fix what ailed the country. In his inaugural address, he promised that “American carnage” would end. The president’s attitude on Wednesday sent a different message. These problems are unsolvable. There’s nothing to be done.
What the president implies, his allies plainly state. Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida tweeted that Wednesday was “That terrible day you pray never comes,” as if school shootings were acts of God rather than the inevitable outcome of freely available military-style guns. “Evil is sadly always present,” opined Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, as if America’s uniquely sky-high rate of gun violence is the product of an incurable moral disease. The Republican Party is weaponizing helplessness.
And not just around guns. In the worldview of the modern GOP, American leadership can’t stop climate change. Raising the minimum wage can’t help workers. Investing in universal pre-K can’t give young people a shot at a better life. It’s hopeless. But this sense of hopelessness isn’t born of despair. It’s born of a desire to loot the treasury on behalf of the wealthy, slash the social safety net, jeopardize our children’s futures, and still be able to sleep at night. After all, if we can’t fix our problems together, greed isn’t selfish. It’s smart.
Which brings me back to a president, and a podium, and a time when the words that defined the White House were “Yes, We Can.”
For Obama, consoling a nation was not just about feeling pain. It was about taking responsibility. “We bear responsibility for every child,” he said after Sandy Hook. The victims are our children. Gun violence is our problem. And while we’re frightened, we’re not helpless or hopeless. That’s the kind of message we have a right to expect from our presidents. We also have the right to expect their actions to match their words.
So that’s probably too much to expect from Trump. But if we refuse to follow his example, if we take responsibility where he shirks it, if we confront our challenges where he hides from them, if we speak up where he stays silent, then slowly but surely things will change. We can replace leaders whose first instinct is to ignore mass shootings with leaders whose first instinct is to address them. And then one day, maybe they won’t have to.
David Litt is the author of “Thanks, Obama: My Hopey Changey White House Years” and a former speechwriter for President Obama.