Since the beginning of his presidential campaign, Donald Trump has weaponized his insincerity and the bad faith of his supporters in order to deny his own accountability for the things he does and believes.
If critics take Trump’s praise for mass deportations or internment camps at face value, they are guilty of taking Trump too literally. If Trump praises violence against the media, or calls for a foreign government to aid his campaign, his detractors are informed that the president is only kidding—when he absolutely isn’t. Whenever Trump says or does something horrible, his defenders insist that he did not actually do or say it, and then attack Trump’s critics for misrepresenting him. Yet everyone involved in the charade knows which Trump is the real Trump, his defenders most of all. It’s why they like him.
During the 2016 campaign, reporters and political analysts would frequently discuss a hypothetical Trump “pivot,” imagining the moment when he would cease his appeals to prejudice or use of casual falsehoods in order to embrace a more traditional political persona. That never happened.
After Trump assumed the presidency, those desperate for the pivot that never came indulged in another frequently mocked rhetorical device. Whenever Trump publicly performed the traditional duties of the office in a satisfactory fashion, they declared that “this was the day he became president.”
Inevitably, Trump would soon return to form. We don’t often hear either of those rhetorical devices invoked anymore. The beginning of the end was when Trump initially condemned the white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that ended with the murder of the counterprotester Heather Heyer, and then turned around and insisted that there were “some very fine people” on both sides. Despite Trump’s initial condemnation, white nationalists were left convinced that the president, whatever his aides might persuade him to say publicly, was sympathetic to their movement.
This all established a clear pattern: Fake Trump is magnanimous; Real Trump is petty. Fake Trump represents all Americans; Real Trump cares only about his base.
The problem is not, as some have suggested, an eroding standard of civility in political discourse. Even early in the republic, politics at the presidential level were often nasty. But there is a distinction between speech that is mean, objectionable, or even false and speech that explicitly justifies violence. In a democracy, civility is optional. Nonviolence is essential. Which is why American presidents must genuinely condemn political violence against their opponents.
That is what makes Trump’s frequent, obvious insincerity dangerous, because there are times when the president must be trusted. On Friday, Cesar Sayoc, a 56-year-old Florida Republican, was arrested for sending explosive devices to Democratic leaders and prominent Trump critics, including CNN. For the past week, the president has issued the rote condemnations of political violence that one would expect from a U.S. president. The problem is that there’s no reason to believe he means a word of it.
As my colleague David Frum writes, Trump has not made any gestures of sympathy toward those targeted. Instead, he has framed himself as the true victim of an attempt to assassinate leaders of the opposition party and suggested that the anger that led to the bombs was the result of the media being too critical of him. Last week, the president praised a congressman who, in an act of utter cowardice, physically attacked a reporter who asked him a question; at other times, the president has encouraged his supporters to attack anti-Trump protesters by offering to pay their legal bills. In the meantime, the Republican Party has been running ads accusing Democrats of encouraging violence, even as the president does just that publicly, a gambit some in the media have rewarded by suggesting that left-wing protesters heckling politicians in restaurants is a kind of violence.
An irony of this discourse is that conservative Trump defenders, and some in the media, have adopted a version of the oft-parodied argument among some on the left that words can constitute violence: Left-wing words are violence, and right-wing violence is just words.
Suffice it to say that individuals on both the left and the right are capable of political violence, as we saw with the mass shooting at a congressional baseball practice that ended with Republican Representative Steve Scalise being shot and nearly killed. Neither side of the aisle has a monopoly on virtue, and leaders from both parties should take care to ensure they are not encouraging violence from their supporters. Nevertheless, in the United States, acts of terrorism on the far right are more common than on the far left, and no figure in the Democratic Party has celebrated or encouraged political violence against opponents the way Trump has.
Trump is not personally responsible for the actions of a lone bomber—but he is responsible for how he handles those actions, and for the messages he sends to his supporters about the acceptability of political violence.
During an appearance at the White House Friday for an event with a black conservative group, Trump told reporters: “We must never allow political violence to take root in America. We cannot let it happen. And I am committed to doing everything in my power as president to stop it—and to stop it now.”
Shortly afterward, some of those assembled began chanting “Soros,” referring to George Soros, the wealthy Jewish philanthropist who has been a frequent object of right-wing conspiracy theories, and who was targeted with a bomb earlier this week. Then they chanted “Lock them up” and “CNN sucks.” Trump laughed.
The president condemned political violence and called for unity. And not even his own supporters believed it. They, like Trump, were in on the joke.