Washington • It is not just his stoking of white supremacist sentiment that makes Donald Trump such a dangerously unfit president. It’s also the corruption, the weakness, the ignorance, the incompetence and the stunning lack of empathy — all of which we saw this week on grotesque display.
What kind of man visits two grieving communities, shattered by horrific mass shootings, and somehow makes it all about him? I covered the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007 and had trouble sleeping for weeks afterward; colleagues of mine have had similar reactions to other massacres. Yet what apparently lingered with President Trump from his trip Wednesday to Dayton and El Paso was the tone of the coverage he received on cable news.
No one expected Trump to play the consoler-in-chief role particularly well; we know him by now and grade him on a curve. His prepared statement Monday on the deadly shootings, which he read from a teleprompter with all the passion of a hostage tape, was about all anyone could expect. But even with my jaundiced view of this president, I couldn't have imagined that soon after getting home to the White House he would be tweeting about all the "love, respect & enthusiasm" he was shown and complaining that the "Fake News worked overtime trying to disparage me."
Me, me, me, me, me. Always me, never anyone or anything else.
"We vow to act with urgent resolve," Trump said Monday, in what he quickly demonstrated to be a lie. The National Rifle Association doesn't want any action, period, and Trump is in the NRA's pocket. We've been learning from court documents and news reports just what a cesspool of corruption the NRA is, but Trump knows he's too weak to have a chance at reelection without the gun lobby's money and influence.
The president has cowed the Republican Party — morally even weaker than he is — into submission. If he demanded a ban on military-style assault weapons of the kind used in Dayton and El Paso, a step favored by a hefty majority of Americans, Congress would surely give it to him. But he won’t. Instead, Trump natters about video games and mental health — neither of which Congress will do anything about, either.
Trump has been talking about universal background checks for gun purchases, a measure that has overwhelming public support. But he made the same noises last year after the Parkland, Florida, school shooting, and nothing happened. The Washington Post reported that NRA chief executive Wayne LaPierre called Trump on Tuesday to warn him against moving forward on background checks legislation, which has already been passed by the House but is being blocked by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in the Senate. I don't believe for a minute that Trump has the guts to disobey.
Trump's racism is now, at least, a matter of frank public discussion. On Monday, he dutifully denounced white supremacy. But by Wednesday, in remarks to reporters at the White House, he was also denouncing "any other kind of supremacy," whatever that means.
It was a return to the kind of both-sides rhetoric he used after Charlottesville, when he saw "very fine people" both in the anti-Nazi and the pro-Nazi ranks.
Trump obviously knows very little about American history. But he must at least be aware that belief in white supremacy was used as a justification for 250 years of slavery and a century of Jim Crow repression. Trump can clearly see how closely the El Paso shooter's racist manifesto tracks his own Make America Great Again rhetoric about an alleged "invasion" of Latino immigrants coming across the border. Trump has to know these things. By claiming equivalence with some mythical "other kind of supremacy," he's saying: I don't care.
While Trump was making a sad clown of himself, Joe Biden was in Iowa giving a fine speech of the kind we expect from a president after tragedies such as last weekend's — a speech that puts what happened in context and points the way forward.
At one point, Biden repeated something he's said throughout the campaign — that he fears having Trump in the White House for a second term could irrevocably change the nation. I used to think that was hyperbole, but I've come to fear he may be right.
My hope is that these awful shootings will refocus all the Democratic candidates on the stakes of this election. Nuanced differences in various plans to achieve universal health care are secondary. The important thing is to fight — together — for the soul of the nation. And to win.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.