Politics

Donald Trump Is an Arsonist Pretending to Be a Fireman

Don't be fooled.
August 6, 2019
Featured Image
(Photo illustration by Hannah Yoest.)

Donald Trump said some beautiful things to the nation following this weekend’s mass murders in El Paso and Dayton.

For instance:

  • “In one voice, our nation must condemn racism, bigotry, and white supremacy.  These sinister ideologies must be defeated. Hate has no place in America. Hatred warps the mind, ravages the heart, and devours the soul.”
  • “We must recognize that the Internet has provided a dangerous avenue to radicalize disturbed minds and perform demented acts.  … The perils of the Internet and social media cannot be ignored, and they will not be ignored.”
  • “Cultural change is hard, but each of us can choose to build a culture that celebrates the inherent worth and dignity of every human life.”
  • “Now is the time to set destructive partisanship aside—so destructive—and find the courage to answer hatred with unity, devotion, and love.”

Every one of these statements is undeniably true. There is just one problem. Every one of these statements represents—precisely—central critiques of the damage Donald Trump has done to America’s political system over the last three years.

He did this.

And now the arsonist is pretending to be the fireman.

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Let’s take Trump’s statements one at a time.

“Our nation must condemn racism, bigotry, and white supremacy.”

You may perhaps remember that on February 28, 2016, Trump was asked by Jake Tapper about how he felt about being endorsed by white nationalist David Duke. Here is the full text of the exchange:

Tapper: I want to ask you about the Anti-Defamation League, which this week called on you to publicly condemn unequivocally the racism of former KKK grand wizard David Duke, who recently said that voting against you at this point would be “treason to your heritage.” Will you unequivocally condemn David Duke and say that you don’t want his vote or that of other white supremacists in this election?

Trump: Well, just so you understand, I don’t know anything about David Duke. Okay? I don’t know anything about what you’re even talking about with white supremacy or white supremacists. So, I don’t know. I don’t know, did he endorse me or what’s going on, because, you know, I know nothing about David Duke. I know nothing about white supremacists. And so you’re asking me a question that I’m supposed to be talking about people that I know nothing about. 

Tapper: But I guess the question from the Anti-Defamation League is, even if you don’t know about their endorsement, there are these groups and individuals endorsing you. Would you just say unequivocally you condemn them and you don’t want their support?

Trump: Well, I have to look at the group. I mean, I don’t know what group you’re talking about. You wouldn’t want me to condemn a group that I know nothing about. I would have to look. If you would send me a list of the groups, I will do research on them. And, certainly, I would disavow if I thought there was something wrong.

Tapper: The Ku Klux Klan?

Trump: But you may have groups in there that are totally fine, and it would be very unfair. So, give me a list of the groups, and I will let you know.

Tapper: Okay. I mean, I’m just talking about David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan here, but…

Trump: I don’t know any—honestly, I don’t know David Duke. I don’t believe I have ever met him. I’m pretty sure I didn’t meet him. And I just don’t know anything about him. 

For the record, Donald Trump had known who David Duke was for decades. So he was deliberately avoiding condemning white nationalism. Only several days later did Trump issue a pro-forma condemnation. How was this interpreted by white nationalists? They believed that Trump’s original position was the true one and that his late-stage condemnation was merely de minimis pandering to mainstream America. David Duke continued to celebrate Trump’s unacknowledged allegiance

And no wonder. After the white nationalist march in Charlottesville that culminated in murder, Trump again offered de minimis condemnation, but mitigated it with the insistence that some of the the white nationalists were also “very fine people.” 


“The perils of the Internet and social media cannot be ignored, and they will not be ignored.”

Here, to take just one example, is Trump spreading a theory about a massive conspiracy to cover up the fact that Barack Obama was not a natural-born citizen:

Here he is, as president of the United States, using social media to spread an unsubstantiated lie about the legitimacy of a presidential election:

Then there was that time Trump retweeted an incendiary video purporting to show a Muslim immigrant attacking a Dutch teenager. The video was a hoax. Trump helped to spread it.


Each of us can choose to build a culture that celebrates the inherent worth and dignity of every human life.

It’s a lovely sentiment. But you may recall the time he referred to Mexican gang members as “animals.”

Or the time he referred to Haiti and various African states as “shithole“countries.

Or when he asked at one of his rallies how we could stop illegal immigrants and one of his fans yelled “shoot them” and Trump stood there and smirked and then quipped how you could only get away with that sort of thing in the Florida panhandle.

 

Or this:


But the most amazing part of Trump’s remarks on Monday?

“Now is the time to set destructive partisanship aside—so destructive—and find the courage to answer hatred with unity, devotion, and love.”

Answering hatred with “unity, devotion, and love” is absolutely the right response.

Here are some of the things Trump has said about people who did not “hate” him, but merely had the temerity to criticize him and oppose his political ascendency.

For instance, there was the time he said this about John McCain: “He’s not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”

Or the time he told four Democratic congresswomen to “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”

Or the time he called Charles Krauthammer a “clown.”

Or called Rand Paul “a spoiled brat without a properly functioning brain.”

Or the times when protestors came to his rallies and he more or less asked the crowd to beat them up:

If Trump has been trying to unite the country, then he has failed spectacularly—his overall approval rating has never topped 46 percent and his partisan split—the difference between his Republican approval rating and everyone else—is one of the largest ever recorded.

But of course, he has never tried to unite the country. That’s not his modus operandi. His entire political strategy is based upon creating maximum polarization and maximum political chaos. Because that’s the only way he has a chance to win reelection.

It is important to note here that even Trump’s most loyal defenders would never argue that their man believes in “unity, devotion, and love.” Because their entire rational for supporting Trump is that “he fights” and is willing to destroy norms of civility and liberalism that they no longer believe in. Trump’s most loyal supporters have rejected each of the things Trump called for on Monday, on the merits.

There is a sense in which every politician is a hypocrite and hypocrisy is valued because it is the tribute vice pays to virtue.

But this is different. Trump has deliberately created the world in which we now live. At every turn, his critics have warned that he was treading in dangerous territory.

Why, specifically, did Trump alarm his critics? 

Because he did not condemn racism and white nationalism.

Because he was polluting social media and importing the toxic elements of the internet into mainstream politics.

Because he ignored the inherent dignity and worth of human life.

And because he preached divisiveness and anger, rather than unity and love.

Now maybe Donald Trump has suddenly changed his mind about all of this. Maybe he will repent and mend his ways.

I would not bet the milk money on that.

Instead, what we have here is an arsonist who has set our country on fire. And he’s standing around in the crowd with the rest of us, watching the blaze, and he’s lecturing us like he’s one of the firemen.


One more thing: In fairness, Donald Trump is not, by himself, responsible for the current rise of white nationalism.

Any honest accounting of American politics over the last 50 years would recognize that at various times each party has had dangerous elements as part of its coalition. For the modern Republican party, one of those dangerous elements has been racists and white nationalists. Their presence long predates Trump.

What is different about Trump is this: Every other leader of the Republican party for the last 50 years has declined to openly welcome the racist and white nationalist elements into the party. From time to time Republican leaders have nodded and winked at them. Especially during the heat of elections, there have been dirty tricks and dog whistles. But these episodes were marked by the very fact that they were done in whispered, underhanded manners. For the most part, when Republican leaders spoke, they utterly disavowed the racist and white nationalist elements and publicly refused their support.

Trump is the first leader of the Republican party in modern terms to personally and publicly harness racism and white nationalism as part of his coalition. He has viewed those elements of the party not as problems to be managed, but assets.

So no, Trump did not create this moment. But yes, he is foundationally different in his approach to racism and white nationalism than other Republicans and yes, he has contributed to the current outbreak.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is executive editor of The Bulwark.