For years now, I have come to expect to see a police presence at high holiday services. I first noticed it a decade or so ago at our synagogue in Media, Pennsylvania. One or two police officers showed up in a radio car. It was at once comforting and disconcerting. It was comforting because, like many parts of the United States, Delaware County had its lunatic fringe. It was disconcerting because it was a reminder that, once again, Jews were understood to be outsiders in a Christian society.
This year, living in Boulder, Colorado, I thanked the Boulder police officer who stood by the door as I walked in to Kol Nidre services, the evening service that marks the beginning of Yom Kippur. The police presence struck me as odd, as Boulder is a college town on the edge of the mountains that feels safer than Media with respect to the possibility of random acts of hatred. Then I recalled that the Denver area has had more than its share of tragic mass shootings.
As saddened and disheartened as I felt — and continue to feel — upon hearing of the mass shooting by Robert Bowers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, as well as Cesar Sayoc’s failed pipe bomb plot, I was not surprised. Those attacks — along with the murder the same week of two African Americans at a convenience store in Louisville, Kentucky after the killer failed to gain access to the black church down the street — seemed to be inevitable outcomes of the path we have been heading down as a nation.
Nor was I surprised by the public response to the attacks on social media or in the public square. Fox anchor Lou Dobbs and right-wing icon Rush Limbaugh spoke for the masses of defenders of Donald Trump across social media when they immediately decried the pipe bombs as a “false flag” operation; a plot by instigators on the left — libtards in the right-wing social media vernacular — to make Republicans look bad in advance of the election. Any suggestion that the past several years of hate-filled rhetoric from the President might have emboldened Sayoc and Bowers was unacceptable to commentators whose own words mirrored the contempt so often evinced by the President.
Playing on racial animus as a means to political advantage has been central to Donald Trump’s public persona, dating back to the Birther movement and his attacks on the Central Park Five. In the early months of 2016 presidential primary season, he foreshadowed how his flirtations with racist supporters on the right would play out eighteen months later in Charlottesville, with his stumbling, reluctant disavowal of the endorsement of his candidacy by David Duke. House Speaker Paul Ryan scolded Trump for his ambiguous language and cozying up to the former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard with words that have long since been rendered quaint. “If a person wants to be the nominee of the Republican Party, there can be no evasion and no games. They must reject any group or cause that is built on bigotry. This party does not prey on people’s prejudices. We appeal to their highest ideals. This is the party of Lincoln.” Mitt Romney, the standard bearer of the GOP barely three years earlier, similarly chimed in, suggesting that “the coddling of repugnant bigotry is not in the character of America.”
But Trump would quickly prove the two erstwhile Republican leaders wrong. Sayoc and Bowers — like the Nazis that paraded through the streets of Charlottesville — read the signals from Donald Trump that attitudes once deemed unacceptable now have a place at the table in our partisan world. Two years ago, when Ryan and Romney lambasted Trump for sidling up to the Klan, they thought that they were leaders of a Republican Party whose members would follow them. Nine months later, the Never Trump movement collapsed and Republican voters stood foursquare behind Donald Trump as their nominee. Now, almost two years into his presidency, he enjoys the highest approval rating among Republicans of any president on record.
And Donald Trump has not changed. Not one iota. As with his grudging disavowal of David Duke’s endorsement and his weak-tea rebuke of Nazis in Charlottesville, Trump was quick to follow up his critical words toward Cesar Sayoc and Robert Bowers with a return to the vitriolic campaign rhetoric that nurtured their hatreds and — at least in their minds — gave license to their actions. Trump did describe Sayoc and Bowers as evil; but evil is a term he throws around loosely. Just a few weeks ago, he declared Democrats en masse to be evil — to the vocal dissent of his outgoing UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, but few others of note — and no doubt he will do so again soon.
What changed were Republicans themselves. Of the two-thirds who disavowed him early on, a large share have simply chosen to turn a blind eye to the President’s willingness to pander to extremists within his base, whether out of enthusiasm for tax cuts, for slashing the regulatory state, or for the appointment of conservative judges. Others convinced themselves that Trump’s willingness to confront China or play nice with North Korea offered the prospect of benefits that outweighed the damage that he might do to the fabric of the nation along the way. The simple truth is that Donald Trump did not create the conditions that has led synagogues to need police protection — or even to the mailing of pipe bombs — but the exacerbation of those conditions are the bricks and mortar upon which he has built his political movement. It is the willingness of mainstream Republicans — who in another era might have rejected Trump because of his abject coddling of bigotry — to go along for the ride that has brought us to where we find ourselves today.
Franklin Graham, the son of Billy Graham and one of Donald Trump’s earliest and most vocal supporters in the evangelical community, commented on Facebook that he was shocked when he heard about the pipe bombs sent to many Democrat leaders. “Disagreeing with someone’s politics or their stand on issues does not justify violence, harassment, or intimidation tactics.” But he shouldn’t have been shocked. Of all people, he should have learned that language matters back when the vitriol of the anti-abortion movement in the 1980s and 1990s led to killings at women’s health clinics. Evangelical leaders at the time didn’t pull the trigger or detonate the bombs, but they created the conditions in which their followers felt license to do what they did. Yet Graham has excused Trump’s worst excesses every step of the way, even as Trump has routinely applauded harassment, reveled in intimidation tactics, and condoned violence by his supporters against the press and his opponents. How else would one interpret Trump assuring his supporters that he will pay their legal bills if they “knock the crap out of” someone.
The anger and deep sadness that I have felt in the wake of the mass shooting in the Tree of Life synagogue is not just about the attack itself, but in knowing that those killings, as well as the murders in Louisville and the attempted pipe bombings were inevitable. From the moment in June 2015 when Donald Trump descended the escalator in Trump Tower and announced his candidacy, he let the world know that he intended to use conspiracy and hate mongering to bond himself to his base, and he has remained stridently true to that plan. In the ensuing years, he has relished his role as an instigator of partisan rhetoric, and in the social media world, he has turned up the heat in a landscape where threatening language and simmering rage has become widespread. It seemed only a matter of time before that language and rage was translated into action.
To paraphrase Florida gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum, it does not matter if Donald Trump believes that Democrats are evil and the media are enemies of the people, what matters is if his supporters believe that he believes it. (I actually do not believe that personal animus enters into much of what he does, which makes his indifference to the impact of his words all the more pernicious) Then you apply Dick Cheney’s “one percent” counterterrorism doctrine: if one percent of Trump’s 60 million supporters take his rhetoric seriously, and one percent of those who take him seriously decide to act on those words, then there are 6,000 crazies out there ready to take up where Sayoc and Bowers left off.
When I think about those who died at the Tree of Life synagogue, I think about the long chain of events that led us to a place where police stand at the ready when Jews gather to worship. I think about those who continue to support Donald Trump, ignoring or excusing how he has emboldened racists and bigots who for so long have been shunned from our politics. And I wonder, as the City of Pittsburgh buries its dead at the hands of a man who declared “There is no #MAGA as long as there is a kike infestation,” whether some of them might finally have a moment of epiphany and reject a President who sees all of this hatred as nothing less than a means to his own advancement.
Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul. He is working on a book, with a working title of “FedExit! To Save Our Democracy, It’s Time to Let Alabama Be Alabama and Set California Free.”
Artwork by Joe Dworetzky. Check out Joe’s political cartooning at www.jayduret.com. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.