Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly quoted President Trump at his rally in Wisconsin.
Editor’s Note: Michael D’Antonio is author of the book, “Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success” (St. Martin’s Press). The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. View more opinion articles on CNN.
In President Donald Trump’s brief remarks Wednesday about bombs mailed to prominent Democrats who stand in opposition to him, and to the media organization Trump has repeatedly demonized, he did the least a President could do. Although he used words such as “abhorrent” and “despicable,” Trump struggled to sound like a true leader of a nation wracked by political conflict that he has intensified to critical mass.
His quiet tone of voice came across as insincere to anyone who is familiar with the intensity of his rally performances, and his failure to mention CNN, the media outlet targeted, exposed where his heart truly lies. This is a man who views the objects of his anger and mockery as less-than-deserving of respect, and who lacks the instinct for decency. He waited for his Vice President, and his daughter, Ivanka, to offer words of support for the targets before he tweeted three mere words – “I agree wholeheartedly!”
Coming from a man who has often electrified the internet with tweets before the nation is even awake, this response was a pathetic effort.
Then, when he spoke publicly Wednesday afternoon about the threats, Trump offered weak words about bipartisan unity.
It wasn’t until Wednesday night, at a rally in Mosinee, Wisconsin, that he took a concrete stance, saying “any acts or threats of political violence are an attack on our democracy itself. … There is one way to settle our disagreements, it’s called peacefully at the ballot box.”
But, given Trump’s track record, these words carry little weight. Trump campaigned as a divider with no pretense of uniting the nation. As he vilified the national media, especially CNN, he sought to dehumanize reporters as “scum,” “horrible,” and, worst of all, “enemy of the people.”
During his campaign, Trump wistfully recalled the days when protesters were brought away from events “on stretchers” and offered to pay legal fees should a supporter attack a dissenter at a Trump rally. Now, he has no standing to call for peace and unity.
Hillary Clinton, who is still subject to chants of “lock her up!” at Trump rallies, was smeared as “crooked Hillary,” as if she were really a criminal. And who doesn’t remember the years-long effort Trump made to cast doubt on President Obama’s legitimacy with divisive, conspiracy-theory rhetoric about his birthplace?
We have no idea who sent the bombs and no idea what the motive was. But what we can say is that the conspiracy theories Trump promotes, like the violent rhetoric he uses, have degraded the political environment to the point at which the kind of terrorism that comes with mail bombs is not a surprise. This trouble was foreshadowed during the campaign when two men attacked a Hispanic man in Massachusetts while saying “Donald Trump was right. All these illegals need to be deported.”
Another instance of Trump-galvanized violence featured one of his supporters cold-cocking a protester at a rally; and yet another saw a reporter man-handled by Trump’s campaign manager at a press conference.
More recently, a California man who possessed 20 firearms was arrested after threatening staff at the Boston Globe. He had used Trump’s “enemy of the people” line in his calls to the paper.
Given the President’s construction of an alternate universe where he’s permitted to utter lies by the thousands without ever taking responsibility, his inept attempt to address Wednesday’s bomb threats was, perhaps, inevitable. Trump has consistently played with the fire of violent talk and has thrived on a strategy of going where others, for good reason, won’t. Many of his fellow Republicans have seemingly lost the will to rebuke him, and he has so thoroughly divided the nation that a subset of Americans thrive on the energy of his hateful speech.
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As President, he has legitimized rage, set the conditions for the danger that is on the rise, and diminished our ability to even engage each other with goodwill and civility.
Trump’s rhetoric long ago crossed a line. Now he can never be the leader who can bring us back to where we were before he came along with his diatribes and anger.