As the president tested out increasingly vile attacks on Democratic representatives, telling them to “go back” to their home countries, and mocked Baltimore’s murder rate to guffawing crowds, many conservative media outlets were there to defend, justify, and amplify the racism behind Trump’s attacks, all while reassuring their audiences that there was nothing racist about them. The deaths in Pittsburgh did not fundamentally alter the political incentives for the president or the Republican Party, and so it also did not fundamentally alter conservative alarmism about ethnic and religious minorities. As long as Republican politicians and conservative media figures continue to echo the white-nationalist belief that people who do not share their background or religion pose an existential threat to America, their condemnations of white nationalism ring hollow.
I have no doubt that the majority of Republican voters were deeply disturbed by what occurred in Pittsburgh, and now in El Paso. The problem is that the political incentives for the president, the conservative media, and the Republican Party have not changed. As long as the GOP sees scaring white people half to death as its path to power, the president cannot abandon his white nationalism, the Republican Party cannot fail to defend it, and many conservative media outlets will not be able to disappoint their own audiences by unreservedly attacking the president. Indeed, while National Review and the Washington Examiner issued unrestrained condemnations of white nationalism, Trumpists were hard at work casting themselves as secondary victims of the shooting.
The metaphor of choice was “pointing fingers.” Trump’s adviser Kellyanne Conway tweeted, “Finger-pointing, name-calling & screaming with your keyboards is easy, yet … It solves not a single problem, saves not a single life.” The entirety of the Trump campaign and presidency has been pointing fingers. To an extent, that is a normal part of politics—what makes Trumpists unusual is that they point them directly at entire religions and ethnicities, holding them collectively responsible for the actions of individual members of the group, the better to justify discriminatory policies. Trumpists’ actual apprehension about “pointing fingers” today is that they understand quite well where they should be pointed. At any other time, Trump and his allies are happy to point fingers at the guilty and the innocent alike.
Instead, the aftermath of El Paso will likely play out the same way as the aftermath of Pittsburgh. Trump will continue to foment hatred for ethnic and religious minorities, while hoping that the simmering pot he is stirring does not boil over into the kind of political violence that sparks a backlash among the white voters he needs to win. The president and his advisers have already—twice now—publicly declared that his road to victory at the ballot box lies in further polarizing the country along racial lines. Trump’s approach is less a strategy than an impulse, and the president is not capable of restraining his impulses for long.