A Murder in Trump's America

When a gunman shot Srinivas Kuchibhotla and Alok Madasani, he acted alone—but such tragedies are abetted by politicians who fuel the resentments that produce them.

Orlin Wagner / AP

This story was updated on Wednesday, March 1 at 10:23 a.m.

Last Wednesday evening, a couple of regulars were drinking al fresco at Austins Bar and Grill, in Olathe, on the southwestern, Kansan outskirts of Kansas City. Some of the wait staff were said to know Srinivas Kuchibhotla and Alok Madasani as “the Jameson guys.” By the end of the night, one was dead, and the other wounded. I wrote a book about a similar crime that took place a decade and a half ago, in Texas. And I learned along the way that understanding a tragedy like the one in Kansas requires looking at the broader context of hate and fear in which it took place, and at their enablers.

Kuchibhotla and Madasani were Indian immigrants who worked at Garmin, the company behind the GPS technology that has helped to bind the world; it was founded in Kansas by a white American and a Taiwanese immigrant and is now based in Switzerland. Olathe, today a suburb popular with Indians, was incorporated in 1857 by a Virginia transplant who tended to the local Shawnee Indians—the other kind of “Indians”—as their doctor, and who was also a militantly pro-slavery man who served the Confederacy as a surgeon in the Civil War—yet not before deferring to the Shawnees and naming the town after their term for “beautiful.”

America, too, is beautiful in these layers and complexities and comings and goings; and some people don’t like that. On that Wednesday night, the Jameson guys began to be harassed by one of those self-appointed guardians of a simpler, purer country that never was. A white man named Adam W. Purinton wanted to know where they came from. Witnesses said the former Navy man was shouting racial slurs at the Jameson guys. Although reports suggested that Purinton was in bad shape lately—rattled by the death of his father, drifting from gig to fleeting gig, regularly drunk before noon—there is reason to believe that he was keeping up with the news. “He asked us what visa are we currently on and whether we are staying here illegally,” Madasani told The New York Times.

Purinton was kicked out of Austins for his racist harassment; he stormed back a short while later, angrier than before, armed and animated with purificatory purpose, adorned with (possibly fake) military medals, and screamed “get out of my country” before spraying the men with bullets. Madasani was wounded; Kuchibhotla was killed. Purinton was later arrested at an Applebee’s, where he reportedly spoke of having gone after Middle Easterners.

President Trump has found time to condemn multiple different episodes of “Saturday Night Live,” an individual movie actor, a local union leader in Indiana, a range of news outlets, and military contractors he fears are fleecing the United States. He has taken the time to condemn a terrible thing that never happened in Sweden. But he waited six days to condemn the terrorism in Kansas; and when he did, in his address to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night, he insisted that “we are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all its forms.” But we are not such a country, not least because of him.

Before the speech, I had a revealing exchange with the White House press office. I reached out by email, phone, and Twitter during the day on Tuesday, to ask if there was “any aspect of Purinton’s motivations or deeds that he disavows,” in light of “the resonance that many have already pointed out between his ideas and some of what this president has proposed.” No answer for ten-and-a-half hours. I received confirmation by phone that my email had been received, but the opportunity to condemn Purinton was, evidently, not one the White House wanted to seize. Then, shortly after this piece appeared online in its original incarnation, I received a statement from a spokeswoman named Lindsay Walters: “The President condemns all acts of violence against the American people.” This sounded pleasant, but was in fact remarkable: Asked to condemn an attack on two foreigners targeted for their perceived foreignness, the White House chose to condemn violence against “the American people.”

When Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, was asked on Friday about the shooting in Kansas and whether Trump’s rhetoric could have contributed to that or other violence, he said: “Obviously, any loss of life is tragic, but I’m not going to get into, like, to suggest that there’s any correlation I think is a bit absurd.”

But the correlation is not absurd. Untangling the motives of any individual who commits an act of violence is hard; but in aggregate, crimes form patterns, and become predictable. I cannot claim to know the president’s intentions, but I do know that he is saying and doing things that will reliably lead to people dying. Unfortunately, I am in a position to explain why. I wish I did not have to.

In mid-September 2001, a Dallas man named Mark Stroman was reeling from the attacks on his country. He was nursing many of the things that would later show up in Purinton: a dangerous relationship with intoxicants, family pain, drift in his work life, and grandiose visions about doing for his country what his country was not man enough to do for itself. Stroman went on to shoot three South Asian immigrants working at three different Dallas mini-marts, two of whom died. I ended up reporting on the case and writing a book about Stroman and his surviving victim, a Bangladeshi immigrant who later forgave him and fought to save him from execution in the name of Islam and its teachings about mercy.

I learned many things about Stroman from my reporting—reviewing thousands of pages of court files, interviewing his friends and associates, meeting his daughters and ex-wife, reading his words in letters and blog posts from Death Row. Among my discoveries was that a self-proclaimed “American terrorist” like Stroman could not, in any honest sense, be said to have acted alone. An act such as his could only be understood as dependent on concentric circles of enablement, including from people who would find his writings and actions abhorrent. Stroman depended on ideas and language he borrowed, and often literally plagiarized, from his social betters in the media and politics: ideas and language that gave his raw, shapeless emotions a sense of purpose and a narrative.

Stroman was known to have obsessively consumed television news after 9/11, watching replay-after-slo-mo-replay of the planes hitting the towers. The news would soon spit out a new term, “enemy combatants,” to label people being rounded up in a new Global War on Terror. This new category justified torture and other inhumane treatment that would otherwise be illegal under the Geneva Conventions. The government’s phrase seemed to inspire Stroman’s self-justifying moniker for himself: he was an “allied combatant”—a patriotic, white-hat version of the man who fights for his people, but from the outside. If they can do it, why not I?

The country was also being bombarded at the time with President George W. Bush’s dubious and self-serving framing that America was being attacked because of its freedoms. The U.S. Capitol’s dining hall began serving Freedom Fries. And, sure enough, soon thereafter, in his manifesto accounting for his crimes, Stroman bemoaned America’s being “under siege at home, because we are the land of freedom.” The manifesto repeatedly made the case that foreign people who had hurt and humiliated Americans deserved to “feel the same sense of insecurity about their immediate surroundings.” After I published the manifesto in the book, more than one person pointed out that that argumentative structure eerily echoed that found in the fatwas of Osama bin Laden that had also been very much in the news. It was as if Stroman was inhaling every single grand pronouncement whizzing past him. Meanwhile, the Bush administration was making a highly public case that what might have been answered as a massive criminal deed was, in fact, an opening salvo in what would come to be called a “forever war.” That self-serving idea from high up also made it into Stroman’s self-justifying rants about his own murders: “This was not done during peace time but at war time.”

Sometimes these ideas didn’t merely influence Stroman; sometimes he actively plagiarized them. When I was polishing the book, I discovered that certain handwritten manifestos that Stroman signed as if his own were really written by others. When he wrote that “I believe the money I make belongs to me and my family not some midlevel governmental functionary,” or that “if you are an American citizen, you should speak English,” or that “our soldiers did not go to some foreign country and risk their lives in vain and defend our constitution so that decades later you can tell me it’s a living document, ever-changing, and is open to interpretation”—when he wrote such things in his curly penmanship or on his transparent prison typewriter, he was stealing verbatim from leaders, intellectual and political and otherwise, to give his vague anger some shape.

Stroman needed the bridge of these ideas to cross over from his private angst to his new career as an American terrorist. He did not have the wherewithal to cross that bridge alone. The country’s leadership class lent him theirs, one phrase and argument at a time.

What is so distressing about the present moment, when compared to that after 9/11, is that the circles of enablement back then had their limits. While Stroman did absorb plenty to justify his general sense of mission, he categorically did not receive, from the highest levels of American power, any support for his actual cause. President Bush, in fact, went out of his way to declare that “the enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends.”

Fast forward to the present, and you have a president of the United States who is explicitly on the record as saying, “Frankly, we’re having problems with the Muslims.” Of the Koran, Trump has said, with uncharacteristic humility, “I’m certainly not an expert, to put it mildly, but there’s something there that teaches some very negative vibe.” He has translated those feelings into a call for a ban on all Muslim immigration into the United States—which was later reinvented as a ban on travelers from seven mostly Muslim countries.

Part of being a leader is understanding how what you say will be used, how it will refract into other lives. Trump does not appear to understand how ideas like his trickle down into lives less gilded than his. These ideas—that there is a problem intrinsic to Islam, that all is not well with “the Muslims,” that America’s “open borders” are causing bad hombres and rapists and “illegals” without visas to steal its very sovereignty—these ideas spill from the lips of a tycoon like Trump. Perhaps they are nothing more than a political tactic for a man who has been happy to build hotels in the Muslim world and manufacture products in Mexico and China and socialize with international friends and wives. But they come into the heads of men like Stroman and Purinton, men who don’t have a lot going on, men who’ve been given to wondering whether they matter to this world, men who used to enjoy the perquisites of being white and male, especially when they had nothing else to hold on to, and who now feel those perquisites slipping away.

Men like Purinton might hear that “the illegals” are lurking everywhere, maybe even at a local bar on a Wednesday night, which at Austins in Olathe was chicken-fried-steak night. Or perhaps they hear that America’s intelligence agencies aren’t doing their jobs, and that the president, according to the president, knows more than the generals, and that America doesn’t know how to defend itself anymore. And some slender fraction of these men, attaching themselves to the great themes and language they hear, will turn to violence—perhaps even feeling that they are following the president’s example from his take-matters-into-your-own-hands rhetoric toward protestors at campaign rallies: “I’d like to punch him in the face.” A man who hears such things and is inspired by the language and themes and ideas all around him might, like a wannabe ICE agent, ask some brown guys about visas. He might tell them to go back to their country. He might decide that they have to die.

Trump admirably saw, and built his campaign around the insight, that millions of Americans have felt punched-down-upon for a generation. Some of that feeling was mixed with bigotry, along the lines of the saying that equality, when it hits the privileged as a headwind, can feel like oppression. But a lot of that feeling was very real, thanks to all the jobs that went away and all the downsizing and private-equity squeezing and pension raiding and hedge-funder tax cutting and foreclosing. It is a fact of the traditional, and not alternative, kind that, even as the American economy doubled in size since the 1970s, 117 million adults in the bottom half of that economy have been “completely shut off from economic growth,” with nearly 70 percent of new income going to the top tenth of the population, according to a recent paper by the economists Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez, and Gabriel Zucman.

For a few decades now, Americans have been reared on the lie that the market dogmas of free trade and deregulation and government cutbacks, often subsumed under the term “globalization,” were a win-win for all. Another recent paper, by the economists David Autor, David Dorn, and Gordon Hanson, focusing on just one aspect of what was actually going on, the effect on local U.S. communities of increased trade with China, found that, contrary to the claims of American elites on both the center-left and center-right, the costs were devastating, yielding:

a fall in both male and female employment; a reduction in men’s relative earnings, particularly at the lower tail of the earnings distribution; an increase in the rate of male mortality from risky and unhealthful behaviors; a reduction in the net availability of marriage-age males in affected labor markets; a reduction in the fraction of young adults entering marriage; a fall in fertility accompanied by a rise in the fraction of births to teen and unmarried mothers; and a sharp jump in the fraction of children living in impoverished and, to a lesser degree, single-headed households.

It was Trump’s genuine achievement somehow, despite his remove from ordinary people and reality itself, to tap into the pain and anxiety wrought by trade and other global and technological forces, and to do so in a way that few others even tried. The China paper is a reminder that there was probably a great deal more unrest and trauma and fear and resentment out there than American elites were willing to admit, in part because they were benefiting from the very forces that others were experiencing as a beat-down.

The tragedy of Trump is that, somewhere down the line, he resolved to answer these emotions, in which earned pain sometimes mixed with simple bigotry, by diverting blame from those who caused the pain to those who didn’t but were convenient receptacles for bigotry. He decided to help those who felt punched-down-upon, not by making meaningful changes in the policies that punched them, but by giving them the satisfaction of punching down at others—and, in some sense, by saying nothing when one of them takes it a little too far by killing an Indian. The consolation prize for the generation-long losses experienced and/or perceived by his base—which skewed male, white, older, less-mobile and less-educated—was a new freedom to resent black, brown, Muslim, and immigrant communities.

In other words, the least vulnerable Americans betrayed the middlingly vulnerable, and Trump’s answer was a war against the most vulnerable. The Goldman Sachs guy cost the Scranton guy his house and his hours, and the most marginal communities of color and faith were made the scapegoats. Trump went on to hire several of the Goldman guys—and one Goldman woman.

The president, then, is not only an enabler of hatreds. What he is enabling is actually central to his political appeal. He needs his supporters to believe that black and brown people and immigrants and Muslims are their real enemy. He needs this, because if they were to stop believing this, they might well turn on people like him. There may be nothing more important to him, politically, than to make sure that the pain and vulnerability felt by certain downwardly mobile white men never joins up with the different but no less real pain and vulnerability of all those who are not such men. But for those of all backgrounds who feel that vulnerability in this age, it may be more essential than ever to connect those different forms of pain, as hard as that is to do in a time like this.

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