If Donald Trump’s political rise was made possible by his angry and defiant inflections while campaigning in the 2016 presidential election, that same bombastic tone has proved more difficult to sustain in a week marred by politically motivated violence and death.
As much of the nation recoiled Saturday from the news that suspect Robert Bowers had opened fire in the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, killing at least 11 people and leaving six more wounded, the president faced a decision — for the second time this week — as to whether to cancel a planned political rally.
“We can’t let evil change our life and change our schedule. We can’t do that. We have to go,” Trump said of his rally at Southern Illinois Airport in Murphysboro, Ill., and his attendance at the Future Farmers of America Convention in Indianapolis. “It doesn’t mean that we can’t fight hard and be strong and say what’s on our mind, but we have to always remember those elements: We have to remember the elements of love and dignity and respect, and so many others.”
The balance that Trump must now achieve in the final nine days before the midterms, whose outcome could stall his agenda, is how hard to hit his political opponents and the news media that reports on his administration. That uncomfortable dynamic was on display during the president’s rally in North Carolina on Friday night, just hours after Cesar Sayoc, an apparent Trump superfan, was arrested for allegedly sending pipe bombs to critics of the president.
“In recent days we have had a broader conversation about the tone and civility of our national dialogue. Everyone will benefit if we can end the politics of personal destruction. We must unify as a nation in peace, love and in harmony. The media has a major role to play, whether they want to or not,” Trump said Friday as his crowd broke out into boos, then a chant of “CNN sucks!” Trump responded to that by adding, “And they do indeed, they have a major role to play as far as tone and as far as everything.”
When compared with Trump’s muted speech on Thursday, the day it was learned that pipe bombs had been mailed to leading Democratic figures among others, Friday’s speech drifted back to Trump’s unapologetic, incendiary rhetoric that has defined his rallies.
A similar pattern held on Saturday, with the president beginning with a somber tone before pivoting to take on his political rivals once more.
“Well, I want to thank everybody, because this was a rough, rough day for us,” Trump began at his Illinois rally aiming to boost Republican Rep. Mike Bost.
“Before going any further, I want to address the horrible shooting that took place earlier today,” Trump continued. “The hearts of all Americans are filled with grief following the monstrous killing of Jewish Americans at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pa.”
Trump, whose daughter Ivanka converted to Judaism after marrying Jared Kushner, went on to decry the “evil anti-Semitic attack,” saying “it will require all of us working together to extract the hateful poison of anti-Semitism from our world.” Bowers has a trail of anti-Semitic posts on social media.
“We must stand with our Jewish brothers and sisters to defeat anti-Semitism and vanquish the forces of hate, that’s what it is,” Trump said before pivoting to make a plea to reinstate death penalty laws nationwide.
“We have to bring back the death penalty. They have to pay the ultimate price,” Trump said, adding, “We must draw a line in the sand and say, ‘Never again.’”
Absent from Trump’s Illinois speech was any mention of “globalists,” but the president did make use of the term hours earlier in Indiana.
“We don’t worry too much about the globalists. … We have to take care of ourselves before we start worrying about others,” Trump said Saturday.
In several speeches this week, in fact, Trump reprised his “globalism” refrain and promoted himself as a “nationalist.” While the president’s stated reasoning is that global trade agreements have hurt American workers, in the parlance of anti-Semites, the term “globalist” is used as a stand-in for “Jewish.”
“It’s an epithet that is disproportionately directed at a particular minority group. Just as ‘thug’ is often used to invoke the stereotype that African-Americans are violent, ‘globalist’ can play on the stereotype that Jews are disloyal,” Peter Beinart wrote earlier this year in the Atlantic.
Yet that association has not stopped Trump from adopting the term into his vocabulary. At a raucous White House event on Friday, Trump attacked “globalists” who he said are “cheating” America. A member of his audience shouted “Soros!” which led another to shout “Lock him up!” The president, meanwhile, chuckled in response.
Soros was the first person to be targeted in this week’s pipe bomb attacks.
After explaining his decision to go forward with his Saturday rally in Illinois despite the shooting in Pittsburgh, Trump told his crowd that he was “going to tone it down just a little, OK?”
But many in the audience, apparently still hungry for Trump’s hard-hitting rhetoric, shouted “No!”
While Trump’s stump speech may have taken a little longer to find its political legs, the president eventually returned to deriding Hillary Clinton to chants of “Lock her up!” As he had the day before, Trump blasted Democrats for their “resist and obstruct” agenda, and warned about a return of “Speaker Nancy Pelosi” and the power that would await Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., another target of the pipe bomb attacks, if Republicans suffer significant losses in November.
The president also referenced the Central American migrant caravan making its way toward the U.S. border with Mexico. “Caravan, turn around. You’re not coming in. You’re not coming in. I’m sorry,” Trump said, before moving on to once again mock Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., as “Pocahontas.”
While those lines of attack would, in and of themselves, make for a crowd-pleasing stump speech, the question now for Trump and the Republicans, after a week of horrific headlines of crimes committed by individuals who appear influenced by philosophies either inspired by or to the right of the president, is whether the message of his campaign blitz will still resonate with voters or seem diminished by current events.
“This election is about borders and this election is about jobs,” Trump assured his audience in Illinois, the somber tone that had started the rally but a footnote.
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