A cultural reckoning over a president’s language as critics tie shooting to hateful rhetoric

President Trump speaks to the media.
President Trump speaks to the media.
(Associated Press)

Can words kill?

That question burst into ugly view in blood-smeared shopping aisles in El Paso, as the border city mourned at least 20 dead and authorities weighed hate-crime charges against a gunman linked to a furious manifesto denouncing an immigrant “invasion.”

The killings almost immediately escalated the national debate over President Trump’s divisive and sometimes racist rhetoric against people of color and particularly immigrants, whom he also likened to an “invasion.”

The attack also spurred calls for heightened law enforcement focus on an emboldened white nationalist movement and domestic terrorism, which despite being more deadly in the U.S. is largely overshadowed by fears about Muslim extremism.


And the gunning down of nine people early Sunday in an entertainment district in Dayton, Ohio – which came only hours after the El Paso shootings Saturday -- brought anguished new pleas for gun-safety measures in a nation that previously has resisted significant restrictions on access to battle-grade weaponry, even after schoolchildren were slain at Sandy Hook Elementary.

The twin disasters in Texas and Ohio spoke in differing ways to the fury and polarization bedeviling American politics and policymaking, even as the country embarks on a bitter election season that could turn on Trump’s emerging strategy of heightening racial divisions. Yet passing gun-control legislation and reining in Trump’s divisive rhetoric remain political long shots.

In the wake of the El Paso shooting, critics of Trump on Sunday denounced his incendiary comments on race and immigration, but the president’s supporters said it was unfair to blame him for inspiring such attacks. A top Trump aide, acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, declared: “I don’t think it’s fair to lay this at the feet of the president.”

Among Democrats, White House aspirants were some of the sharpest critics of Trump’s past statements, asserting that he bore moral responsibility for fomenting hatred that could serve as an inspiration to attackers. Several Democratic senators also called on Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to reconvene the chamber, currently on a break, to consider gun-control measures.

Some argued that a moment like this –- and the president’s role in it -- transcends politics and moves into a larger realm.

“The president is a cultural figure, more than anything,” Rep. Tim Ryan, an Ohio Democrat, said on Fox News. “And you set the cultural tone of the country.”


But it remains to be seen whether Trump changes his tone, which appeals to his loyal base. Past political storms over his language have blown up and then subsided. After the deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., Trump was criticized for drawing a moral equivalence between the behavior of neo-Nazis and those who turned out to protest against them. It did little to alter his rhetoric.

Also unclear is whether current backlash against Trump will lead to any meaningful defections within his party. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas denounced the El Paso attack on Twitter as a “heinous act of terrorism and white supremacy,” but refused to implicate Trump in any way.

Democratic presidential candidates, by contrast, castigated Trump for encouraging white supremacists with statements dating back to the early days of his campaign. Authorities in Texas were scrutinizing whether the alleged gunman in El Paso wrote an anti-immigrant screed that was posted online shortly before the shootings.

Sen. Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat who is seeking his party’s 2020 nomination, told CNN: “I want to say with more moral clarity that Donald Trump is responsible for this. He is responsible because he is stoking fears and hatred and bigotry.”

Presidential contender Pete Buttigieg cited reports “that the shooter yesterday had his goal as killing as many Mexicans as possible.” Speaking on CNN on Sunday, he said: “You don’t have to use a lot of imagination to connect the dots here. It is very clear that this kind of is being legitimized from on high. And if that were not true, the president would be acting and speaking very, very differently than what he’s doing right now.”

Beto O’Rourke, another presidential aspirant whose hometown is El Paso, was asked on CNN’s “State of the Union” whether he believes Trump is a white nationalist. He responded bluntly: “Yes, I do.”


O’Rourke quickly came under fire from the chair of the Republican National Committee, Ronna McDaniel, who accused him of seeking to score political points. “A tragedy like this is not an opportunity to reboot your failing presidential campaign,” she tweeted.

Former San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, another Texan running for president, cited the need to address “toxic white supremacy that is brewing in the country” and said GOP elected officials needed to “call out” the president’s divisive rhetoric.

“If this had been somebody of the Muslim faith that had committed this kind of act, immediately they would go with this idea that –- as the president has, this bogus idea -- that we have to keep all Muslims out of the country, which is absolutely ridiculous,” Castro said on NBC.

Trump spent most of the day Sunday out of sight at his New Jersey golf property. From there, he tweeted praise of law enforcement and expressed sympathy for the victims, initially refraining from hitting back at critics. “God bless the people of El Paso. God bless the people of Dayton, Ohio,” he wrote on Twitter. Upon returning to Washington, he declined to answer a reporter’s questions about the role his own rhetoric might have played in the attack.

Senior Trump aides said it was unreasonable to link the actions of attackers to the president’s words.

“This is a serious problem, no question about it, but these are sick, sick people, and the president knows it,” Mulvaney said on ABC’s “This Week.” On NBC, he added: “I blame the people who pulled the trigger.”


White House counselor Kellyanne Conway struck a tone that suggested a strategy for coming days, calling for unity but excoriating those who criticize the president.

“We need to come together, America,” she tweeted. “Finger-pointing, name-calling & screaming with your keyboard is easy, yet…It solves not a single problem, saves not a single life.”

But Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), one of Trump’s chief congressional antagonists, drew a direct line between presidential words and real-life consequences, saying that “white supremacist terrorism” is a real and present danger.

“When the president and other leaders use racist or dehumanizing language to describe immigrants and Muslims as invaders, angry and isolated men with guns are listening,” he wrote on Twitter. “And acting.”

The shootings in Texas and Ohio came against a backdrop of controversy over racist remarks by the president about Democratic lawmakers of color. Three weeks ago, he tweeted that four minority congresswomen, three of whom were native-born, and all of whom are U.S. citizens, should “go back” to their countries of origin.

When Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, who is black, complained about the president’s attacks on the liberal congresswomen, Trump blasted the Maryland Democrat over crime and rodents in his Baltimore district. Then he called Cummings, a civil rights veteran, a racist.


The El Paso attack prompted some critics to circulate a 3-month-old clip of a Trump rally at Panama City Beach, in the Florida Panhandle, at which the president mused aloud about how to stop migrants from crossing the southern border.

“Shoot ‘em!” shouted someone in the audience, drawing cheers from the crowd.

Trump smiled and shook his head. “That’s only in the Panhandle you can get away with that statement,” he said.

As in previous mass shootings, the dual attacks in Texas and Ohio brought the gun-control issue to the fore. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, called on Twitter for McConnell to “immediately” call the Senate back into session to take up a gun-safety measure. Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, who gave up a presidential bid earlier this summer, echoed that call.

Dayton’s Democratic mayor, Nan Whaley, called the deaths in her city “completely preventable.” In a phone interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press,” she posed a direct question to elected officials in Washington.

“We’re city No. 250,” she said. “How many more cities have to go through mass shootings before somebody does something to change the law?”

Others pushed for a higher priority by law enforcement on domestic terrorism and nationalist extremism. In May, six Democratic senators -- three of them presidential hopefuls -- called on Atty. Gen. William Barr to ramp up action, writing in a letter: “It is clear that violent white supremacists are the most significant domestic terrorism threat facing our nation today.”


Times staff writer Melissa Etehad contributed to this report from Los Angeles.