President Donald Trump has allowed mention of white supremacy to escape his lips on only two occasions in his political career. The first came in February 2016, when under questioning from Jake Tapper he declined to reject an endorsement from the former KKK leader David Duke. The second came in August 2017, after a white-supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia. “Racism is evil and those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white-supremacist and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear,” he said in an August 14 statement.
After his claim at a press conference the following day that “not all of those people were white supremacists by any stretch” set off a firestorm of criticism, he reverted to his earlier formula, quoting the original statement again a week later at a rally in Arizona. Since then, white supremacy has gone unmentioned.
So it was notable that Trump once again used the phrase this morning, speaking about massacres in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, over the weekend.
“The shooter in El Paso posted a manifesto online consumed by racist hate,” Trump said at the White House. “In one voice, our nation must condemn racism, bigotry, and white supremacy. These sinister ideologies must be defeated. Hate has no place in America. Hatred warps the mind, ravages the heart, and devours the soul.”
It was a strange speech, with Trump sticking closely to prepared remarks and uttering words—malice, barbaric, cruelty—that are unusual for him. He spoke from the Diplomatic Reception Room, the same place where he spoke after the Charlottesville violence, trying to clean up his widely condemned comments.
Yet Trump complicated his call for Americans to speak with one voice against white supremacy by also blaming a slew of other factors for the shootings. In an early-morning tweet today, Trump blamed the press for mass shootings, and in his remarks at the White House, he spent more time talking about the internet and social media, video games, and mental illness than he did about racist violence. In doing so, he largely missed, or was distracting from, the point. It’s like a physician diagnosing a sucking chest wound, and then offering some aspirin and recommending exercise to a patient.
Of the other causes Trump named, some stand up to scrutiny and others do not. Consider mental illness. “We must reform our mental-health laws to better identify mentally disturbed individuals who may commit acts of violence and make sure those people not only get treatment but, when necessary, involuntary confinement,” he said. “Mental illness and hatred pulls the trigger, not the gun.” Some mass shooters are mentally ill, but scholars have found little correlation between mental illness and violence, and tightening laws around the mentally ill and guns has had, at best, small effects in the past.
Trump largely danced around the issue of guns per se, blaming other factors, as he has in the past. In the aftermath of the Parkland, Florida, school massacre, he heralded the passage of new laws, as well as an executive order banning bump stocks. “Republicans and Democrats have proven that we can join together in a bipartisan fashion to address this plague,” Trump said today. “Now is the time to set destructive partisanship aside.” But the persistence of attacks even after these changes demonstrates the challenge, and as the president knows, Republicans have repeatedly blocked further action, including expanded background checks, which is wildly popular with voters.
Trump devoted as much time to “gruesome and grisly video games” today as he did to white supremacy, but as my colleague Ian Bogost writes, the evidence about links between real-life violence and video games is shadowy at best.
Trump is on firmer ground talking about the internet. “We must recognize that the internet has provided a dangerous avenue to radicalize disturbed minds and perform demented acts,” he said. “We must shine light on the dark recesses of the internet and stop mass murders before they start.”
Scholars of extremism broadly agree that the internet is a powerful vector for encouraging extremism, including its most violent forms. It is not clear, however, what Trump recommends be done about the internet. Political campaigns have had some success in pressuring private companies. Yesterday, after the El Paso shooter’s manifesto appeared on the website 8Chan, the hosting company Cloudflare announced that it would no longer support the site. But any government campaign risks running into First Amendment issues.
Trump has not shown particular understanding of the importance of free speech, and his tweeted attack on the media is as disturbing on First Amendment grounds as it is nonsensical. “Fake News has contributed greatly to the anger and rage that has built up over many years. News coverage has got to start being fair, balanced and unbiased, or these terrible problems will only get worse!” he tweeted. Following this idea to its logical conclusion, and given Trump’s previous complaints about the press, the suggestion is that news coverage skeptical of Trump or sympathetic to immigrants provoked the massacre in El Paso.
But the emphasis on the internet as a vector for extremism overlooks the important point that, like cable TV and newspapers, it’s a medium—in this case, for racist hatred, much of it coming from or amplified by the president himself. It’s the content, more than the medium, that matters.
After the March massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand, the president was asked whether he worried about white-nationalist violence. “I don’t, really. I think it’s a small group of people that have very, very serious problems,” he said. Trump says he has now changed his mind, though treating this as a serious, permanent change is difficult. In the past, he has often quickly reversed condemnations of hatred, especially when he speaks off-the-cuff after scripted speeches.
But Trump can’t condemn white nationalism too thoroughly, because that would require repudiating his own words and political platform. Appealing to racism is at the heart of his political strategy, ever more explicitly as the 2020 election nears. Polls show that most Americans believe Trump’s actions and words encourage white supremacists.
The manifesto posted by the El Paso shooter speaks of an “invasion” of immigrants, echoing Trump’s own language. A researcher for the liberal group Media Matters for America found that the Trump reelection campaign has run more than 2,200 Facebook ads that mention an “invasion” over the past 15 months. The president has also laughed at, and declined to condemn, suggestions of shooting unauthorized immigrants.
“The perils of the internet and social media cannot be ignored and they will not be ignored,” Trump said today. If he means it, he can start by looking at his own Twitter account.