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Donald Trump continues to play his cynical game of dodging responsibility, shifting blame and exploiting tragedy. In a press conference called to address the horrors of two mass shootings in the United States over the past weekend, the president said nothing about his pivotal role in stoking fear and racism among certain segments of the population, said nothing about the fact that five of the 10 deadliest shootings in American history have happened since 2016, the fact that he has become a figurehead in the dark underground of the global white nationalist movement.
Instead, Trump blamed the internet, blamed video games, blamed Congress and blamed “mental health issues”. By tying legislation for tougher gun laws to immigration reform, as he tweeted earlier, Trump also and by extension blamed immigrants, who themselves are the victims of the very racism that has been unleashed by this president.
With this ethical black hole of leadership and narcissistic exploitation of other people’s tragedy, Trump proves once again – as if we needed any more proof – that he is unfit for the office he occupies. But the tragedy is larger than his job. It’s also what he’s doing to our country.
How are we, the ordinary people of this country, supposed to go about our daily lives in this country any more? The victims in Ohio were doing nothing but enjoying themselves before they were gunned down. The killed and wounded in El Paso were doing nothing but back-to-school shopping.
Nor does it stop there. Last April, people were terrorized in Poway, California, when a shooter entered their synagogue as they were celebrating Passover and began firing. And at least since last March, when a suspected white supremacist stormed two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, killing 51 people, American Muslims have congregated more nervously, increasing security at their mosques around the country. If you think the New Zealand connection is far afield from the American context, note that both the alleged Poway and El Paso shooters referenced the New Zealand shooter directly and favorably in their own manifestos.
“In general, I support the Christchurch shooter and his manifesto,” the alleged El Paso shooter’s manifesto says. “This attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas. They are the instigators, not me.” The rhetoric here sounds suspiciously like the president’s, who for months, had been tweeting and shrieking about the so-called caravan being “an invasion of our country”. Trump even laughed at the suggestion that migrants should be shot.
Such is the world of ideas that circulate dangerously and freely today. Hispanics are invaders, says the suspected El Paso shooter. Muslims want to “replace” white people, according to the accused Christchurch shooter. Jews are determined to “enslave” all the other races, proclaims the alleged Poway shooter. All of these notions are as ridiculous as they are noxious.
But while such ideas can be easily dismissed, their real-world consequences cannot. When will the next shooting happen? And who will be its target? The world of the rightwing extremist is populated by too many enemies. Muslims, Latinxs, Jews, immigrants, African Americans, refugees, women. And who will the president blame next?
Probably those with mental disabilities, but the idea that mass shooter phenomenon is “a mental illness problem” is another Trumpian sleight of hand. Not only does such a notion deflect responsibility from his own racist statements and actions (and not only does it conveniently forget that in 2018 Trump himself made it easier for people with mental illness to buy guns), but it also advances a dangerous falsehood. In fact, there is no scientifically discernible link between gun violence and mental illness. But with Trump making the link loudly and publicly, those with mental disabilities become even more vulnerable.
In fact, Trump is playing the country like he’s a conductor of a symphony of racist violence. Each of us has come to know a particular fear under him, and he draws it out of us when he wants. Muslims have learned to prepare for violence against them when the president tweets or retweets Islamophobic content. Immigrants – including legal permanent residents, for God’s sake – are being told to live in constant fear of Ice raids and immigration detention. Jewish Americans worry about attending their synagogues. Refugees are told they will be sent back.
Trump waves his baton, and the racism sings.
Nor is this just a matter of perception or limited to the violent acts of the extreme fringe. Reports in El Paso indicate that some people avoided seeking medical care or approaching authorities to find their loved one because of their immigration status, leading the West Texas wing of the Customs and Border Protection to tweet: “We are not conducting enforcement operations at area hospitals, the family reunification center or shelters. We stand in support of our community.”
Under this president, people are now afraid to go the hospital or to go the police. We are being taught to be afraid of the very institutions that have been created to protect us.
Enough of this bloody, miserable and discordant concert of death and hatred. The basic answers are not difficult. We need fewer guns. We need less racism. We need a different president.
Moustafa Bayoumi is the author of the award-winning books How Does It Feel To Be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America. He is professor of English at Brooklyn College, City University of New York