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.
With the nation stunned by a week of violence that included 13 assassinations of Jewish and black citizens and more than a dozen pipe bombs sent to those he had vilified for years, Donald Trump has promised a major address on immigration. He became President by stoking fears of immigrants as “criminals, drug dealers, [and] rapists.”
Trump-style immigrant paranoia motivated the man who is charged with killing 11 at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue. Should Trump make the speech he promised, we must expect the President to make things worse.
By now the world knows that the President considers changing his mind to be a sign of weakness, not wisdom, and that he will seize any opportunity to seek political advantage. Hours after the Tree of Life killings, he offered a talking point from the National Rifle Association playbook, blaming the victims for not posting an armed guard. In the wake of the mail bomb spree carried out by one of his superfans, who targeted a who’s-who of people Trump has vilified, the President made no statement of contrition for his years-long campaign of rage and instead stressed that the media should change its ways.
The President’s ways have, in fact, established the climate of rage, paranoia and inhibition that forms the backdrop of the terrible week past. It began with a white man accused of executing two black patrons at a supermarket in Kentucky and muttering that “whites don’t kill whites.”
Next came the hate-driven mail bomb campaign allegedly carried out by a man whose van is plastered with stickers that announced his support for Trump and his rage for those the President names as his enemies.
Finally, the Pittsburgh temple was allegedly attacked by a man, Robert Bowers, who wrote angry messages about migrant “caravans” and was enraged by a Jewish agency that aids refugees.
Trump has repeatedly ranted about the so-called “caravans,” which are actually composed of people who walk together toward the US border because they feel safer together. Asylum-seekers and refugees represent no actual danger, but the President and right-wing media have recently sounded alarms about them, suggesting that among them lurk terrorists and criminals. They replaced the word “caravan” with “invaders” and circulated the idea that the marchers were backed by donations from Jewish philanthropist George Soros. Echoing an old anti-Semitic trope about a “Zionist Occupied Government,” a spokesman for Judicial Watch spoke to Fox Business Network host Lou Dobbs about a “Soros-occupied” State Department.
With overheated reports on the walkers filling right-wing media and administration officials talking nonsense about the supposed threat they posed, Trump said he might “bring out the military” to stop these bedraggled people, and Vice President Mike Pence offered the hysterical claim that 10 terrorists are captured at the Mexican border every day.
For weeks, Trump had tried to make immigrants the scary monsters that would motivate his political base to go to the polls in the upcoming election. He also thought that his backers would be excited by the fight over Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination. However, as the bomber and the killings took over the national news he began to fret about losing the spotlight.
Actual events, which he had helped stimulate, had overtaken his effort to manipulate the electorate. People were afraid, not of his bogeyman, but of the actual criminals he had inspired. Contemplate the bloodbath Robert Bowers is charged with creating in Pittsburgh and the walkers in Mexico and one readily recognizes that hatred is more frightening than a column of poor people making its way toward the United States from Central America at the rate of a few miles per day.
Sadly, even as the country reeled, Trump continued to play on prejudice. Last week he publicly encouraged the anti-Semitic conspiracy theory that blames Jewish financier/philanthropist Soros for just about everything the goes wrong in the world. Trump has played with Soros paranoia before, but the fact that he did it at the White House after a bomb was found at Soros’ home showed the depth of his depravity.
The occasion was a gathering of supporters where someone shouted Soros’ name and others chanted “lock him up.” Trump smiled, pointed in the direction of the speakers, and said “lock him up.” This statement put the presidential imprimatur on bigotry that brings with it a level of lethal danger.
The dark energy that moves people to indulge hateful fantasies about the “other” is something that has animated Trump for decades. He first used the race card back in the 1970s as he fought federal charges of housing discrimination with vocal complaints about how he was the victim of a “reverse discrimination.” His lawyer, the noxious Roy Cohn, called federal authorities “stormtroopers” and compared them with the Nazi “gestapo.” (Cohn also taught Trump to never back down, and never explain himself.)
In the decades since his losing fight with the feds, Trump offered bigoted talk about blacks, Jews, Native Americans and women. Prior to his election, he advocated “birtherism” to paint Barack Obama as a foreign-born and thus an illegitimate president. As President, he continued fear-mongering and incitement. Reporters became the “enemy of the people.” Democrats are, in his words, “unAmerican” and “treasonous.”
Trump always favored hate and division, as he made absolutely clear when neo-Nazis chanted “Jews will not replace us” in Charlottesville last year. After one of the bigots killed counterprotester Heather Heyer with his car, Trump abandoned unity and decency as he announced there were “very fine people” among the torch-bearing white nationalists who mimicked the Hitler youth rallies of Nazi Germany. (They even shouted the old Nazi slogan “Blood and soil!”)
As Trump neglected his moral duty, the Anti-Defamation League was cataloging a sharp rise in anti-Semitic hate crimes. The first quarter of his presidency saw an 86% uptick and for the year the increase was 60%. The massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue was murderous anti-Semitism mixed with anti-immigration paranoia. Trump’s link to the immigration issue is permanent.
Of course, the President didn’t tell anyone to terrorize the country with pipe bombs or slaughter innocent people. However, as President he has a duty to safeguard the peace, inspire goodness, unify the country and offer clear correctives to hate.
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After a week of hatred unlike any in modern memory, he shows no sign of taking up this duty. Should he follow through and make his big speech on immigration we should expect more of the same. He hinted at this on the night of the massacre when he conducted his second political rally of the day and predicted that the balloting ahead “will be the election of the caravans, the Kavanaughs, law and order.”
Eager to set the agenda, he continues to make hate priority number one.