Another View: A frightening closing argument

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A flurry of pipe bombs targeting political figures and the media. A black man and woman gunned down in a grocery store, allegedly by a white man who had, moments before, tried to storm a black church. A mass shooting at a synagogue. The past two weeks have been ones of heartbreak and fear for many Americans. Even for those not directly touched by the horror, it is hard to escape the feeling that something has gone very wrong.

In the face of such tragedy, a president is expected to serve as the consoler in chief, setting aside the petty elements of politics to comfort a scared and grieving nation. Historically, the role has been pretty straightforward, as the presidential historian Michael Beschloss noted this week: "They heal. They unite. They inspire. It's not exactly rocket science."

But with this president, observed Beschloss, things don't work that way: "It's not in Donald Trump's software to do this. He's a one-trick pony. His single political M.O. is to try to divide and conquer, to pit groups against one another and benefit from it politically."

The violence of late has driven home just how reluctant Trump is to focus on matters beyond the purely political. He knows, or at least is told, what he is supposed to say or do in such situations. But he has a devil of a time staying on that message for more than a few hours — especially with a high-stakes election just days away. The president's carefully scripted calls for national unity are brief and ephemeral, abandoned for more visceral ones of political warfare. It has been painfully easy to distinguish which are coming from the heart.

With both the bomb plot and the massacre in Pittsburgh, Trump issued reassuring statements, condemning the acts of evil and expressing the need for Americans to come together — then promptly chased those sentiments with overheated partisan talk, political scaremongering and attacks on the media, which he repeatedly has blamed for the ugly mood of the nation.

Take this Twitter jewel from the Monday morning after the Pittsburgh shooting:

"There is great anger in our Country caused in part by inaccurate, and even fraudulent, reporting of the news. 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. Fake News Must End!"

More telling, on Oct. 26, as authorities were closing in on the bombing suspect, Trump revealed what was truly vexing him about the situation: "Republicans are doing so well in early voting, and at the polls, and now this "Bomb" stuff happens and the momentum greatly slows — news not talking politics. Very unfortunate, what is going on. Republicans, go out and vote!"

For Trump, a mass assassination plot was little more than a distraction from what truly mattered: his team's political fortunes.

Trump managed to make it through his visit to Pittsburgh on Tuesday without incident, avoiding public remarks altogether. Nonetheless, several residents, most notably Pittsburgh's mayor, Bill Peduto, had publicly requested that a presidential visit be delayed until after the community was done "burying the dead." The immediate focus, they explained gently, should be on the grieving families.

But a White House official told CNN that a trip later in the week would have been complicated by Trump's tightly packed campaign schedule. Once again the president made his priorities clear.

Complicating matters, hundreds gathered in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood, where the killings occurred, in protest of Trump's visit. The president avoided attacking the protesters directly. But come Wednesday morning, he was on Twitter sniping at the "Fake News" for covering the demonstration. "Disgraceful!" he proclaimed.

Trump is hardly the only president to wade into politics during times of crisis. After the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, President Bill Clinton called out the militant anti-government sentiment coming from conservative corners of the political world, denouncing the "purveyors of hatred and division, the promoters of paranoia."

More pointed still, in the aftermath of more than one mass shooting — some 17 of which he had to address during his tenure — President Barack Obama pleaded for stricter gun laws. In response to the 2015 blood bath at a community college in Oregon, Obama went so far as to assert that gun violence is "something we should politicize."

But Trump has not been seeking to find a broader political lesson in recent tragedies so much as he has been eager to blow past the events and return to campaign combat and the adulation of his followers.

Last month, as Hurricane Michael ripped across the panhandle of Florida, Trump stuck to his stump schedule, appearing at a rally in Pennsylvania. "I cannot disappoint the thousands of people that are there — and the thousands that are going," he tweeted in justification.

A heartbeat after Trump's Pittsburgh visit, he was back in full brawler mode, ratcheting up the fearmongering and immigrant-bashing that he is counting on to drive his base to the polls. He touted his proposal to end birthright citizenship and talked of tripling the number of troops being dispatched to combat the migrant "invasion." The online ad released on Trump's Twitter feed Wednesday, which pairs footage from the migrant caravan with that of an unauthorized immigrant convicted of killing two California police officers and binds it all together with claims that Democrats want to let criminals flood the country, was xenophobic demagoguery in its purest form.

At this point, it is perhaps unrealistic to expect anything different from this president. Like the snake in his favorite parable, Trump cannot rise above his fundamental nature. And even in the face of national tragedy, his perspective remains fixed: The presidency is all about the politics, and politics is all about him.

— The New York Times


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