Two weeks before the midterms elections, with an anxious America seeking to catch its breath amid a flurry of revelations that police had intercepted explosive devices sent to senior Democratic politicians and the offices of a media organisation, Donald Trump spoke from the White House and denounced the “despicable acts”.
“In these times, we have to unify, we have to come together, and send one very clear, strong, unmistakable message that acts or threats of political violence of any kind have no place in the United States of America,”
“We’re extremely angry, upset and unhappy about what we witnessed this morning, and we will get to the bottom of it.”
Let two things be said at the outset. At the time of writing, we do not know which individual or group, was behind the packages sent to Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, former attorney Eric Holder, congress woman Maxine Waters or ex-CIA director John Brennan, whose name was on a package containing a pipe bomb sent to CNN’s offices in New York. Let us also give Trump the benefit of the doubt and accept he genuinely believes the country has to unify on such occasions.
But as many pointed out on Tuesday, at best the president’s words rang hollow and at worst, they stuck in the craw. Ever since he launched his bid for the White House, the man who now occupies the Oval Office has gone about the business of politics with the language of aggression, divisiveness and sometimes of violence. Particularly in regard to the media, he has repeatedly and openly spoken in terms not worthy of a democratically elected leader.
He has called them “scum”, “a stain”, the “enemy of the people”. He has voiced his regret at rallies that hecklers can no longer be punched and thrown out. He has referred to migrants from central America, people fleeing violence and poverty, as criminals and rapists.
Clintons and Obamas targeted by explosives
None of this happens by chance. Trump knows such language plays well with his base, as evidenced by the bump in ratings he has received since stoking fears about a caravan of migrants from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, that has entered Mexico and is heading northwards.
In much the way, George W Bush’s strategist Karl Rove used the spectre of another 9/11 to ensure his boss’s re-election in 2004, so Trump is hoping to help Republicans hold on to the Senate and House of Representatives by hinting there are terrorists from the Middle East in the migrant convoy.
The point was made by those are probably the most vulnerable – high profile politicians and the media. Democratic leaders said his words rang hollow because of the compendium of comments he has made condoning violence.
“Time and time again, the president has condoned physical violence and divided Americans with his words and his actions,”
Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi said in a statement.
They cited the president’s :
“support for the congressman who body-slammed a reporter, the neo-Nazis who killed a young woman in Charlottesville, his supporters at rallies who get violent with protesters, dictators around the world who murder their own citizens, and referring to the free press as the enemy of the people”.
Jeff Zucker, the president of CNN, said:
“There is a total and complete lack of understanding at the White House about the seriousness of their continued attacks on the media. Thus far, they have shown no comprehension of that.”
In something of an understatement, Arizona Republican Jeff Flake said if Trump “were to take a more civil tone, it would make a difference”. The president shouldn’t refer to the press as the “enemy of the people.”
Trump probably does not hate the media. He probably does not hate the Democrats he frequently attacks, any more than he hates George Soros, the recipient of a device earlier this week.
He loves being in the headlines, he loves reading about himself in the New York Post and even the “failing” New York Times. He likes to hear about himself on CNN. The media knows Trump is good for ratings. Subscriptions at several newspapers are up, viewers have never appeared more interested in politics.
But actions have consequences. Earlier this year, five journalists were killed when a gunman opened fire at the offices of the Capital Gazette in Maryland. There is nothing to suggest the shooter was inspired by Trump’s anger. Yet America has changed since the former reality television host entered the White House. Reports of hate crimes and racism, especially against Muslims, have increased. Many minorities feel less safe.
Soros is a frequent target of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, some voiced openly by Trump’s supporters, that he is part of a secretive effort by elites to control the world.
His son, Alexander Soros, said in an op-ed piece in New York Times his father had long faced threats over his involvement in politics but said that “something had changed” in 2016 when Trump was elected.
“Before that, the vitriol he faced was largely confined to the extremist fringes, among white supremacists and nationalists who sought to undermine the very foundations of democracy. But with Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, things got worse,”
Trump may have been speaking from the heart when he said the nation needed to come together. But he must lead the way – by changing his actions, words and deeds. Nothing we have seen of him so far suggests that he will.