How Trump Obscures Mass Shootings With Doublespeak

In discussing the El Paso and Dayton massacres, the president and his fellow politicians are taking refuge in the convenience of abstraction.

Clarissa Hernandez holds Ezra Magallanes as they visit a makeshift memorial for victims of a mass shooting at a shopping complex in El Paso, Texas. (John Locher / AP)

On Sunday morning, Dee Margo, the mayor of El Paso, Texas, joined the CNN show State of the Union to speak about the tragedy his city had just endured: a mass shooting the day before in a Walmart that killed 22 people and injured at least 26 others.

“It was an evil perpetrator, from outside of El Paso,” Margo told the host, Jake Tapper, referencing the fact that the alleged shooter had traveled from the Dallas area to carry out the murders. “And I do not believe an El Pasoan would have ever, ever done anything like this. It is not reflective of our nature and our culture.”

Later in the interview, Tapper asked about the racism of the screed the alleged shooter posted online before carrying out the attack. “What do investigators know right now about that document and its hateful message?”

“I have not heard anything updated—I have no updates on that,” Margo replied. “I glanced at it. If he in fact did write it, he’s just an evil person.”

At another point in the interview: “We still have a lot of evil in this world. And he’s representative of that,” Margo said. At another: “I’m focusing on El Paso. There’s evil in this world, and it’s unfortunate.”

There is evil in the theological sense; there is evil in the quotidian sense. The brand of evil invoked on Sunday, however, by this politician who was so reticent to talk about politics, was something else entirely: This was evil as a talking point. The El Paso mayor likely made his CNN appearance running on little sleep, after an intensely difficult day. But in his answers to Tapper’s questions, Margo adopted a revealing refrain: Questioning the causes of the murders, he suggested, was the wrong approach.

The massacre took place, his points went, not because of guns or racism or public policies that enable the two, but because of something much more mysterious: evil that is senseless and therefore unknowable. Margo, a Republican, made a similar suggestion to Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday: “Chris, I haven’t been informed by the police or the FBI about this individual at all, other than knowing that he came from the Dallas area, he was deranged, he was evil ... pure evil, as far as I can characterize it.”

Dee Margo is one of many politicians who have used this kind of language. The violence in El Paso was followed, only hours later, by the killing of nine people and the wounding of 27 more in Dayton, Ohio. As leaders responded to the pair of mass killings, many of them emphasized the presence of evil. “My heart is with everyone in El Paso struck by this unspeakable evil,” Senator Ted Cruz  of Texas tweeted on Saturday. “We condemn these evil acts & stand with the people of Texas and Ohio,” Vice President Mike Pence tweeted the same day. Congressman Mike Turner, whose district includes Dayton, put it this way in a press conference on Sunday: “This is an unbelievable amount of evil that we cannot comprehend.”

In one way, certainly, there is an aptness to those acknowledgments. The horrors of El Paso and Dayton—just like the many other horrors that preceded them—deserve to be discussed using language that sears and soars. There were 255 mass shootings in the United States in 2019 as of August 5; the El Paso massacre, for its part, was the second mass shooting within a week to be carried out at a Walmart. Whatever your personal system of ethics, those facts reveal an epidemic form of wrongness. They suggest an emergency.

But there is a difference between acknowledging evil and using it as a scapegoat. There is a difference between the evil that is invoked to inspire conversations and the evil that is invoked to curtail them. Many of the weekend’s political deployments of “evil” served to proclaim the innocence of the system that has allowed mass shootings to become reliably atmospheric occurrences. An unbelievable amount of evil that we cannot comprehend. It conveys an easy kind of ignorance. Crime … boy, I don’t know.

Evil, summoned in this way, is an extension of thoughts and prayers. It suggests, in the face of human-made terror, not only a kind of complacency, but also a kind of helplessness. It treats the violence of mass murder—the shock; the grief; the two-month-old baby whose fingers are broken because his mother, fatally shot, apparently fought desperately to shield him from the bullets—as an abstraction. Evil is its own explanation, the logic goes; it is not interested in causes or effects. It does not want to talk about the violent ideology of white supremacy, or the mechanics of double-drum magazines, or the fact that, in the United States, a person can go to a store and purchase a military-grade weapon with the convenience of benevolent legality. Evil does not want to talk about the National Rifle Association. It makes no room for the uncomfortable details. Evil, used as a talking point, both throws up its hands and washes them.

It was little surprise, then, when President Donald Trump delivered prepared remarks from the White House yesterday that repeatedly invoked evil as a locus of national commiseration. “This weekend more than 80 people were killed or wounded in two evil attacks,” the president said, reading solemnly from a large screen set up before him in the Diplomatic Reception Room. Later: “We are outraged and sickened by this monstrous evil, the cruelty, the hatred, the malice, the bloodshed, and the terror.”

The speech mentioned background checks and made proposals about “mental-health laws” (though “scholars have found little correlation between mental illness and violence,” my colleague David Graham noted). It also made use of a distinctly Trumpian strain of doublespeak. Here was a leader who has made gleeful performances of his bigotry—who launched his presidential campaign with a declaration that Mexicans are rapists—now referring to racism as an “evil contagion.” Here was a leader who smiled and joked as a fan at a May campaign rally yelled about shooting immigrants, now claiming to advocate for gun safety.

Trump has talked about the evil of racism before. He has talked about the evil of gun violence before. He talked about evil after the 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas that killed 58 people. He talked about evil last week, discussing the mass shooting at the Gilroy Garlic Festival. He took refuge in the notion that those murders are exceptions to the status quo, rather than evidence of the status quo at work. “Trump made a similar call to strengthen background checks after a mass shooting last year at a Florida school,” The Washington Post noted, “and has since threatened to veto bills passed by House Democrats seeking to do so.”

President Barack Obama talked about evil as well; the difference was that he bolstered his words with action. He tried to change a system that has proved so stubbornly averse to improvement. He understood, precisely because of those efforts, what the rhetoric of evil attempts to disguise: Mass shootings are not American exceptions. They are the American rule.