Is Trump responsible?: On Pittsburgh, the MAGA bomber, and presidential fire-starting | The Monthly

On Pittsburgh, the MAGA bomber, and presidential fire-starting


American Dispatches by Richard Cooke

American politics and society has rarely, if ever, been as tumultuous as it is today.

November 1, 2018

Is Trump responsible?

By Richard Cooke
On Pittsburgh, the MAGA bomber, and presidential fire-starting

President Donald J. Trump and First Lady Melania Trump visit a memorial outside the Tree of Life Congregation Synagogue in Pittsburgh. (Official White House Photo by Andrea Hanks)

A flag at full mast registers as something of an oddity in the United States. American society is so often in a state of lamentation that an exceptional gesture has become almost the norm, and when you do see a flag lowered, it is sometimes hard to remember exactly what it has been lowered for. The melancholy moments of violence or loss blend into one another, until they are almost indistinguishable. Was that the massacre? If so, which one? This does something to time as well: mourning on such a schedule does not allow time for reflection, and while the talk is always of “perpetual outrage”, what that really means is fresh outrages. A white supremacist killed 11 people in a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, just four days ago, and already the event is downriver in the collective memory.

By now, “mass shooting in America” is a phrase that carries the same callousing familiarity as “bombing in Baghdad” or “historical sex crimes”. Becoming jaded to it is simply a matter of psychic survival. Contemplation of the real horror would be a full-time occupation, and possibly a lifelong one as well. This one was not even notable as a new pathology. There are ample examples of mass shootings as misogynistic or racist terror episodes, from the Charleston church shooting (African Americans) to the Isla Vista massacre (women). Only a few days before the Pittsburgh shooting, in Jeffersontown, Kentucky, a man named Gregory Bush tried and failed to open the doors to a predominantly black church, then entered a local supermarket and shot dead two African-American shoppers. As he left the crime scene, he “nonchalantly” walked passed a bystander who had drawn a revolver, telling him “whites don’t shoot whites”. Like many racists, Bush had a black ex-wife, and a son by her.

In Pittsburgh, the controversy rested on presidential responsibility. Had Trump’s racialised rhetoric helped inspire the gunman? It had certainly helped inspire the mail bomber who had targeted CNN, Robert De Niro and members of the Opposition. The #MAGAbomber, as he was called, was a no-hoper desperate for attention, who had tried stripping, body building and petty crime as sources of narcissistic supply. He finally found what he was looking for in Trumpism, and drove around in a van plastered with conspiratoria, set in the busy graphic design favoured by paranoid schizophrenics. Before his capture, most “mainstream” conservative pundits claimed his bomb-sending campaign was also a conspiracy, designed to make Republicans look bad before the elections (as though they need outside assistance).

Is Trump partly responsible? This question is best answered by its counter: do President Trump’s words have no effect on people? At the memorial service in Pittsburgh, thousands of protesters turned out to make him unwelcome (this is unprecedented), and tried to communicate love, compassion and tolerance, all the emotions that were required, and that Trump is incapable of. Even his supporters in the media worried out loud about the prospect of a eulogistic travesty (after all, a body count is a kind of crowd size), and Ronald Reagan’s daughter wrote an article titled “Let’s stop asking Trump for comfort after tragedies” in The Washington Post. Some callers on Fox News Radio agreed, making the belated realisation that permanently degrading their national fabric might have been a bad idea.

This is the lesson of “Trump being Trump” that is being learnt most bitterly: “inflammatory rhetoric” can set things on fire. It’s especially enraging that this abdication of presidential responsibility is treated as an innovation, as though none of his predecessors had ever had the brainwave that the bully pulpit could be used literally. Most, even George W. Bush, had the verbal facility to demean and abuse from the Oval Office, but recognised the many reasons why this would be a bad idea, up to and including the kooks and loners and van-men who might find it inspirational (high office knows this division of irregulars by ugly necessity). “Terrorism is about ideology, but it’s also about berks,” the satirist Chris Morris once said, and the dangers of a Berk-in-Chief should be obvious.

But the dangers aren’t obvious, and are not the only thing being unlearnt. Alongside the fictional president who can “fuel the fire” without anyone getting burned, there is an attendant fantasy of a benign enthno-nationalism, which can be implemented without any violence. At the same time as Jewish people were being murdered by a neo-Nazi, dictatorship survivors in Brazil were bracing themselves for the imminent election of a neo-dictator. After the fascistic Jair Bolsonaro’s election victory, jeeps full of troops rolled through city streets to cheering crowds. At least two Opposition supporters were killed by “Bolsominions”, and a clinic for indigenous people was set on fire. A former colleague of mine, a queer, mixed-race academic who has found herself in effective exile from Brazil in Spain, showed me social-media posts suggesting it was now “legal” to kill gays and blacks. Something similar had been written by her own brother.

Trump of course called Bolsonaro to congratulate him, and The Wall Street Journal editorialised in the former paratrooper’s favour, something that should preclude them from writing about “freedom” ever again. In São Paulo, the mayor made a public announcement that police who shot suspects would receive “the best possible legal representation”; in Rio, military police stormed universities to remove anti-fascist and pro-democracy material. A former president, Lula, is in jail, and looks set to remain there. He will soon have company.

Could it really be only two years ago that Rio hosted the Summer Olympics? “We are going to show the world we can be a great country,” Lula said when winning the bid, beating Chicago back in 2009. “We aren’t the United States, but we are getting there, and we will get there.” The sad part is that he may be right. In advance of a migrant caravan still weeks away, Trump ordered troops to be sent to the southern border, and the president most recently indicated that their numbers could swell to as many as 15,000. “Operation Faithful Patriot” begins two days before the November election. “As a wave of far-right terrorist attacks rock the United States, the Secretary of Homeland Security has been doing PR stunts on the southern border about a group of unarmed Central Americans who are hundreds of miles away in southern Mexico,” the journalist Matt Yglesias said on Twitter.

He added, with the naivety so endemic in the American commentariat, that “‘The Caravan’ is intended as a political distraction from the substance of Trump’s economic policy but it also serves as a very real distraction for the actual government, making it harder for people to do actual work.”

But this is the actual government, and this is their actual work.

Richard Cooke

Richard Cooke is The Monthlys US correspondent and contributing editor. 


From the front page

An Orchestra of Minorities

Welcome to The Summer Library: selected extracts from the best new books this summer

Close to Home: Selected Writings

Welcome to The Summer Library: selected extracts from the best new books this summer

Climate Justice

Welcome to The Summer Library: selected extracts from the best new books this summer

Pub test: 2018

The only way is up