Returning to Washington on Sunday evening from a weekend visit to one of his New Jersey golf clubs, President Donald Trump paused on the airport tarmac to speak on camera for the first time about a pair of gun massacres in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas, that left 31 people dead. The El Paso shooter allegedly held anti-immigrant views (a statement attributed to him referred to an “Hispanic invasion of Texas”) and federal authorities are treating the Texas homicides as acts of domestic terrorism.
“Hate has no place in our country and we’re going to take care of it,” said the president. “Condolences to all. We have to get it stopped. This has been going on for years. For years and years in our country, and we have to get it stopped.”
Given that the Republican party stymied efforts in recent years to implement tighter and more effective forms of gun control, it will be interesting to see how the president “takes care of it.” And given that Trump himself has repeatedly invoked the specter of an Hispanic invasion of Texas, it will be interesting to see how much introspection he’s willing to embrace and how much responsibility he’s willing to shoulder in the wake of this pair of tragedies.
After all, the president launched his presidential bid in 2015 by warning of the criminals he claimed were flooding into the U.S. from Mexico. “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists,” he stated, fabricating a connection between immigration and higher crime rates. Three days later he reinforced his point on Twitter: “Druggies, drug dealers, rapists and killers are coming across the southern border. When will the U.S. get smart and stop this travesty?” he asked.
Almost exactly a year later, Trump claimed a federal judge presiding over one of the Trump University fraud cases couldn’t be impartial because he was Mexican (the judge, by the way, had been born in the U.S. to Mexican immigrants who later became U.S. citizens themselves). “He’s a hater. His name is Gonzalo Curiel. And he is not doing the right thing, and I figure what the hell, why not talk about it,” Trump said.
In the spring of 2018 and on into the midterm elections, Trump, channeling “War of the Worlds,” regularly claimed that caravans of Central American migrants were poised, like space aliens, to invade and overwhelm the southern border. Migrants had been forming group caravans since the late 1990s. While there was never any evidence that they were largely populated with criminals or terrorists – and had, in fact, been heavily populated by mothers and children fleeing violence and poverty – Trump insisted they had both cohorts among them. (Trump eventually admitted he had no proof terrorists were in the caravans).
As the midterm elections drew closer in 2018 and Trump continued stoking fears of outsiders pouring into the U.S., he offered his supporters a self-assessment. “They have a word, it sort of became old-fashioned, it’s called a nationalist,” he said at a Houston rally. “And I say, ‘Really, we’re not supposed to use that word.’ You know what I am? I’m a nationalist, okay? I’m a nationalist. Nothing wrong. Use that word.”
Perhaps as he boasted about being a nationalist, Trump forgot about the criticism he had already received for failing to promptly condemn neo-Nazis and white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, a year earlier. Also failing, perhaps, to parse the difference between “patriotism” and “nationalism,” Trump later said he was unaware that nationalism had an association with Nazis and Aryan supremacy.
David Duke, a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan and a prominent white nationalist and white supremacist, was there to educate the president, however. He quickly endorsed Trump’s Houston speech and noted on Twitter that the president was promoting more than mere nationalism – he was proselytizing for “White Nationalism” because “there is no ethnic or racial group in America more Nationalist than White Americans.”
Just a few months ago, Trump took to the stage in Panama City Beach, Florida, and stood before an enthusiastic group of supporters joining him for a political rally. He once again bemoaned what he described as migrants swarming the southern border.
“You have 15,000 people marching up,” he said. “But how do you stop them? You can’t.”
“Shoot them,” someone in the crowd shouted, sparking a round of laughter.
“That’s only in the Panhandle you can get away with that stuff,” Trump responded, chuckling, as the crowd around him erupted in even more laughter. “Only in the Panhandle.”
Trump’s rallies, of course, have often become violent affairs, with fights occurring inside and outside the events. Back in 2016, when a protester was being walked out of a rally, Trump shared with attendees that he would personally “like to punch him in the face.” As the historian Kevin Kruse noted just days ago, Trump “has used his rallies to single out specific enemies” and that it’s “long past time that he started worrying about the consequences of his words.”
Trump’s words aren’t merely background music at those rallies. They’re often the script.
For example, when he recently started what became two weeks of racist rants targeting five Democrats of color, he led off by suggesting that four of them “go back” to their ancestral homes (three of the four women were born in the U.S.). Even though the House of Representatives voted to condemn him for “racist comments that have legitimized and increased fear and hatred of new Americans and people of color,” the president stood his ground. Shortly after that he hosted a menacing North Carolina political rally. The crowd there adopted a variation of his phrasing and began chanting “send her back” after Trump identified Representative Ilhan Omar, a Democrat and a Somali immigrant, as unpatriotic.
The president has been an inveterate racist for quite some time now and this past weekend, shortly before the El Paso shootings, he retweeted, as he has in the past, the musings of a British xenophobe and self-described racist – simply, it would appear, because she shared his hostile feelings toward people of color.
What’s dangerous here is the possibility that Trump’s racism, his cavalier encouragement of violence and his political opportunism – built up over years now – continue to combine and combust. The shootings in El Paso, in which six of the 20 dead were Mexicans, may turn out to have been inspired by something other than the president’s words or actions. But the country doesn’t need an El Paso to find fault with the path the president is on or to consider the doors that his rhetoric and racism may have opened. El Paso is just a wrenching and intolerable reminder of what’s at stake.
Timothy L. O’Brien is the executive editor of Bloomberg Opinion. He has been an editor and writer for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, HuffPost and Talk magazine. His books include “TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald.”