For Trump and his defenders, there is no apparent hypocrisy in this duality, but it is an important indicator as to how the president sees the American landscape: irrevocably and perhaps existentially divided into certain tribes and cultures, with a chasm among its citizens so deep that the murders of Americans for certain political reasons do not always warrant outrage (or even a tweet). Donald Trump is the president of the United States, but in moments like these, his attitude calls into question whether he is not, in fact, more the president of certain states—certain people—than others.
In announcing his withdrawal from the Paris climate change accords, Trump (tellingly) declared, “I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” but if you have listened carefully enough to Trump and his line of reasoning, “Paris” is really a placeholder for the values of liberalism and progressivism, blue state sacraments about tolerance and globalism.
His response in the wake of the terror attacks of the last two weeks mirrors this worldview: he is the president when a certain set of values are threatened, but not others. Victims who were Muslim, foreign-born or progressively-minded and preaching tolerance, would seem to have been citizens of Trump’s mythic (and maligned) “Paris”—he was not elected to represent their interests, he was not placed in office to empathize with their sorrows and tragic ends.
Nor does he serve to necessarily rebuke their tormentors. I spoke with Heidi Beirich—the Director of Intelligence at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate crimes in America—about the asymmetry in Trump’s responses.
“It doesn’t seem like Trump cares about hate crimes against these populations,” she said, speaking of the attacks in Kansas and Quebec and Portland. “When it comes to extremism bred from our own culture, he says nothing—or very, very little. It makes you wonder whether the alt right and the extremists who supported him during the campaign—whether he’s somehow afraid of offending them. The [victims] are fellow citizens—he should care about them.”
Trump is unlikely to be swayed by any arguments dictating what he “should” do in any instance—his whole political career has effectively been a campaign against expectations, after all—but this is a clear break from what Americans, until now, have expected of their presidents. And not simply because sympathy and empathy are expected emotional responses from any leader in a time of grief, but also, more urgently, because presidents have an actual role to play in staving off future horrors.
Beirich recalled the days after 9/11, when then-president George W. Bush addressed a shattered and angry nation and said:
“These acts of violence against innocents violate the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith. And it’s important for my fellow Americans to understand that.
The English translation is not as eloquent as the original Arabic, but let me quote from the Koran, itself: In the long run, evil in the extreme will be the end of those who do evil. For that they rejected the signs of Allah and held them up to ridicule.
The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That's not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace. These terrorists don't represent peace. They represent evil and war.”
Beirich explained, “There was a lot of violence, but the murder sprees in the weeks after 9/11 came to a full stop after Bush’s comments. And the following years saw the [hate crimes] numbers going back to pre-9/11 stats. I think it matters that he said something. It’s not purely coincidental that these things happened in parallel.”
President Trump is eager to offer solutions when the terror emanates from extremism tied to fundamentalist Islamic ideologies, but his suggestions are often ethically questionable or legally complicated. If he chose to act more forcefully against terror driven by white nationalism, one powerful solution—public condemnation—would be readily available to him, without much complication.
And yet, at this moment, it is hard to imagine him using it.