When a president goes to visit the scene of a tragedy, it’s typically a moment to focus attention on the victims and on the causes. Donald Trump is a different sort of president, and as he left the White House this morning ahead of visits to El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, he made sure the focus was, instead, on himself and his political foes.
“Whether it’s white supremacy, whether it’s any other kind of supremacy, whether it’s antifa, whether it’s any group of hate, I am very concerned about it,” Trump said. “And I’ll do something about it.”
In other words, to paraphrase the president’s reaction to white-supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, two years ago this month, there are some very bad people on both sides. This is a bravura performance in missing the point—either intentionally or not. As he goes to visit the city where a racist attacker killed 22 people, Trump cannot keep focused on the ideology that led the man to kill. Instead, he’s engaging in whataboutism, and he and his allies are creating false equivalences that distract from the point.
When Trump spoke on Monday, he offered a perfunctory condemnation of “racism, bigotry, and white supremacy,” then quickly moved on to a slew of other issues—the internet, violent video games, mental illness. He also blamed the media, incoherently. This was a distraction from the point at hand, but his remarks turned out to be only a warm-up.
One of the major methods of distraction has been a misbegotten attempt to equate the Dayton shooter with the El Paso shooter. A review of social-media accounts linked to the Dayton shooter shows support for the Democratic presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, approval of “antifa,” and anger at Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The difference between this and El Paso ought to be clear, but apparently it is not. Police say there is no evidence so far that the man in Dayton acted with political or racial motives when he killed nine people early Sunday morning. By contrast, the El Paso shooter left behind a four-page manifesto in which he lays out the explicitly political and white-supremacist motivations for his attack.
This is not to say there are not people on the left who espouse political violence. This includes not only antifa, but also the man who opened fire at a congressional-baseball practice in 2017, shooting four including Representative Steve Scalise, and who was a supporter of Sanders. Here, too, there is what ought to be an obvious difference: Sanders and Warren have not condoned or encouraged violence, whereas Trump has repeatedly encouraged violence and endorsed its efficacy. The El Paso shooter also directly echoed Trump’s rhetoric about an “invasion” of immigrants. While there are problematic leftists, there’s no evidence to suggest that they were the problem in Dayton or El Paso.
Meanwhile, the Fox News host Tucker Carlson, a frequent inspiration to the president, attempted a bold gaslighting of his audience last night, arguing that white supremacy is not real.
“It’s actually not a real problem in America,” Carlson said. “This is a hoax, just like the Russia hoax. It’s a conspiracy theory used to divide the country and keep a hold on power.”
Carlson’s argument doesn’t stand up to minimal scrutiny. For one, it’s not clear who’s trying to “keep a hold on power.” The president of the United States has both treated white supremacy as real by condemning it (however perfunctorily) and risen to hold power with the support of white supremacists. Moreover, the evidence suggests that a white supremacist just killed 22 people in El Paso. If that’s not a real problem, one wonders what counts as a real problem in Carlson’s world. (The answer: Roma people and Democrats, but mostly immigration—a view the El Paso shooter apparently shared.)
A second distraction has arisen with Representative Joaquin Castro, a San Antonio Democrat, tweeting out a list of the 44 people in San Antonio who have made the maximum legal donation to the Trump campaign this year. The moral and political wisdom of Castro’s move is up for debate, though labeling it “doxxing” is plainly incorrect. Political donations are a matter of public record, easily viewable online, and news outlets publish the names of donors regularly.
That didn’t stop Donald Trump Jr. from arguing otherwise on Fox News this morning. (He also appeared to confuse Castro with his twin brother, Julián, who is running for president.) Just days after an apparent white supremacist literally shot and killed 22 people in El Paso, Trump Jr. contended that the real victims were people who made large donations to his father’s campaign.
“That list sort of screams out like the Dayton, Ohio, shooter’s list,” he said. “When a radical left-wing politician who’s polling at about zero percent does this for either attention or a call to action, it’s pretty scary. I mean, that was the same thing that the Dayton, Ohio, shooter did, and people should be fed up with this nonsense.”
To focus on these distractions, or to try to set them as equal to white supremacy, is to deny the role that ideology played in the El Paso shooting—and in many other recent outbreaks of white-racist violence. It harkens back to Trump’s infamous Charlottesville remarks. Non–white supremacists opposed removing Confederate statues, such as the Robert E. Lee monument in Charlottesville. If any of them showed up at the Unite the Right rally, though, they were participating in a white-nationalist gathering and marching alongside neo-Nazis. Nor, in the days after a white nationalist killed a woman there, were they the point.
The moral imperative facing the president was to offer a clear and unambiguous condemnation of white-supremacist violence, without hedging or false equivalence. Trump failed that test in August 2017, and he’s failing it again in August 2019.