There are no magic words that a president can offer to bring back those who have been lost to senseless tragedies or end the mass violence that is haunting our land. There are no magic words that can suture the cultural fissures that have deepened in the past few years.
But a president does have both the opportunity and the platform to shape the way the country thinks and talks about these acts, to set a north star for change, to console those whose communities have been shattered by violence.
Donald Trump has failed miserably on that front to date—recall his “joke” following the Tree of Life synagogue shooting that he should cancel his remarks because of a “bad hair day.” But the heinous acts of gun violence in El Paso and Dayton this weekend—the former being an explicit white supremacist terror attack targeting Hispanics—present him an opportunity to do so. And if he genuinely wants to make an impact on our nation’s rift, there are a few magic words he could utter, words that might help bring an end to the suffocating tribalist hatred that has consumed us.
Those words must go beyond naming the El Paso attack “white nationalist terrorism,” as the Washington Examiner and others have rightly called for. For Trump to join Republican Senator Ted Cruz and Commissioner George P. Bush of Texas in describing the El Palso atrocity as such is necessary, but not sufficient. No, for there to be any hope of healing during this presidency, the only thing Donald Trump can say is: “I’m sorry, and I will change.”
I’m sorry for my role in stoking racial divisions in this country.
I’m sorry for re-entering the political arena on a fraudulent racist platform where I knowingly lied about my belief that the first black president was actually born in Africa.
I’m sorry for launching my presidential campaign on the backs of Mexican immigrants, claiming that many are rapists and murderers.
I’m sorry that I made the head of an anti-immigrant hate site my campaign’s chief strategist.
I’m sorry for leading rage-filled rallies that stir up animus against my political foes and people of color.
I’m sorry to Khizr and Ghazala Khan. I’m sorry to Judge Gonzalo Curiel.
I’m sorry to all the minority students who have been told on the playground that the president will deport them.
I’m sorry to the American green-card holders who we detained in airports just because of their country of origin.
I’m sorry I spent a week winking and nodding at white nationalists after they killed an innocent woman in Charlottesville.
I’m sorry that I said that we should have fewer immigrants from “shithole countries” and more from Norway.
I’m sorry to everyone who received a bomb from Cesar Sayoc, a person who said my rallies were a “new found drug.”
I’m sorry for telling four minority women duly elected to serve in Congress that they should go back to where they came from.
I’m sorry that we caged citizen Francisco Galicia in a disgusting human kennel without due process just because of the color of his skin.
I’m sorry to the asylees and refugees who I have treated as subhuman because they came from Muslim countries, or countries in Central America. I’m sorry to all the aspiring refugees who have not been welcomed to the land of the free because the bigots I put in positions of power have ensured we accepted the fewest number of refugees in decades.
I’m sorry to Shaima Swileh who spent a year away from her dying American toddler because she had a Yemeni passport. I’m sorry to all the Americans whose family members couldn’t come to see them because we put a ban on travel from Muslim countries.
I’m sorry about the lies I told about Middle Easterners and people with Ebola coming into our country through a southern border caravan. And sharing a dubious story about a “prayer rug” found miles from the border.
I’m sorry that I lied about the number of white people murdered by blacks.
I’m sorry that I can’t help myself but make barely coded racist attacks against “the blacks” generally and black athletes, Congress members, and urban communities in specific.
I’m sorry that I made a joke in Pensacola about people in the panhandle murdering immigrants.
I’m sorry that I have repeatedly shared posts on social media from the members of the alt-right who are fomenting race based violence in this country. Anyone who is arguing that we should be concerned about white genocide or the replacement of white people is a disgusting bigot, not someone who should be elevated by the leader of the free world.
I’m sorry that I invited bloggers who have allied with white supremacists to the White House.
Most of all I’m sorry for calling people who are coming to America for a better life for their family, as so many of our ancestors did, invaders and worse. If anyone who heard these words took them to mean that these people are attacking us or are our enemies I want you to hear from me that these are human beings who deserve our love and compassion, not our hatred.
Kellyanne Conway tweeted on Sunday that “We need to come together, America.”
You know what else doesn’t solve problems or save lives? Hollow calls for unity. And Conway’s tweet is just that unless the president offers the first olive branch.
Because “coming together” after years of bitter insults, personal affronts, and racist actions requires sacrifice and recognition of the past ills for it to be meaningful. Demanding that everyone “come together” behind a president no matter what he says or does isn’t healing, it’s servitude.
Without contrition, and without a commitment to spend the final 16 months of his presidency demonstrating through words and actions that he genuinely wants togetherness and healing, Trump’s words will be simply more salt in the wounds.