Never in my political lifetime has an American president had less moral standing to address a national threat. Nearly every phrase of Donald Trump’s televised response to the El Paso and Dayton shootings could be matched with some discrediting contrast in his own voice.
Trump said: “We are a loving nation.” And this love he has previously expressed by stereotyping migrants as “rapists” and “animals.”
The president said: “In one voice, our nation must condemn racism, bigotry and white supremacy.” But after the bloody Charlottesville protests, the racists, bigots and white supremacists, according to Trump, counted “fine people” among them.
The president said: “The internet has provided a dangerous avenue to radicalize disturbed minds.” This from the leader who declared that he “wouldn’t be surprised” if a caravan of Central American migrants was funded by George Soros.
The president said: “We must stop the glorification of violence in our society.” This from the candidate who said of a protester: “I love the old days. You know what they used to do to guys like that when they were in a place like this? They’d be carried out on a stretcher.”
The president said: “Now is the time to set destructive partisanship aside.” A task that was not made easier when Trump recently gloated over the burglarizing of a Democratic congressman’s home.
The president said: “Each of us can choose to build a culture that celebrates the inherent worth and dignity of every human life.” This from a leader who wanted crying children torn from their parents and held in cages as a deterrent to illegal immigration.
The president said: “Hatred warps the mind, ravages the heart and devours the soul.” Here, at least, Trump is leading by example.
Throughout his career, Trump has given permission for prejudice and, in extreme political need, permission for hatred. Faced with electoral headwinds near the end of the 2018 midterms, Trump did not turn to economic populism, or even anti-elitism. He warned that a group of brown people was invading the country and entertained the prospect of shooting them at the border. This is what Trump views as his secret weapon, his political ace in the hole. “People hate the word ‘invasion,’” he once said, “but that’s what it is. It is an invasion of drugs and criminals and people. … And in many cases, and in some cases, you have killers coming in and murderers coming in, and we’re not going to allow that to happen.”
When such ideas marinate in a disturbed mind, and violence follows, is the president to blame? Concerning political rhetoric, it is recklessness that incurs responsibility. Is it reckless for a leader to use dehumanizing language about migrants and military language about confronting them? Of course it is. Does that make a president directly responsible for the actions of a ruthless shooter? Not in any way that diminishes the primary responsibility of the murderer himself.
But this analysis does not account for a president’s positive responsibility to diminish social division and promote what Franklin Roosevelt called “the warm courage of national unity.” It is not a skill that can be displayed in a moment of need without years of practice. All Trump’s words of healing and inclusion come back to him as pointing fingers of judgment. In talking of love and human dignity, he delivers a damning indictment of his own brand of politics, which employs cruelty and hatred as organizing tools.
When Robert F. Kennedy spoke on the topic of national division at the Cleveland City Club shortly before his death, it was the culmination of a very different public role. “Too often we honor swagger and bluster and the wielders of force; too often we excuse those who are willing to build their own lives on the shattered dreams of others.”
That is exactly what many in the corporate world, and many conservative Christian leaders, are doing in their devotion to Trump: honoring swagger, bluster and force, and excusing a leader who constructs his political success on the cultivation of contempt and slanders against the weak. By their nearly blind support, such leaders are complicit in Trump’s rule by resentment.
“But perhaps we can remember,” said Kennedy, “that those who live with us are our brothers, that they share with us the same short movement of life, that they seek – as we do – nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can.”
It is only on empathy – the virtue most foreign to the president – that unity can be built.
Michael Gerson, a columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group, was President George W. Bush’s chief speechwriter from 2001 to 2006 and a senior policy adviser. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.