“It’s a terrible, terrible thing, what’s going on with hate in our country, frankly, and all over the world, and something has to be done,” President Donald J. Trump said in the wake of the tragic synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh that killed 11 Jews.
That shooting, and these words, came in the same week that a dozen bombs were mailed to Trump’s political enemies by a hate-filled supporter, the same week that a white man in Kentucky tried to break into a black church to murder attendees, and when frustrated walked into a nearby convenience store to execute whatever black people he could find there. These words are fine words, necessary words in this overheated environment, yet they are the words of an arsonist who is pretending to fight the very fire that he has helped to ignite.
They are the words of a man who campaigned for president on a promise to ban an entire religion from entering our country, who launched that presidential campaign by railing about Mexicans as rapists and worse, who raged that a judge’s Mexican heritage made him unqualified to preside over a lawsuit, who has ranted against immigrants coming from “shithole countries” when they could be coming from places like Norway instead.
After neo-Nazis marched through Charlottesville with torches chanting “Jews will not replace us,” it was Trump who told us that there were good people on both sides. It was Trump who made himself leader of the birther movement, seeking to undermine Barack Obama’s legitimacy as our first black president by raising doubts about his birthplace.
And in recent weeks, it has been Trump who has tried to hype a ragtag caravan of asylum seekers a thousand miles from our border into a terrifying “national emergency,” with murderers and Middle East terrorists coming to assault us. It has been Trump whipping up hysteria before the mid-terms by using the presidential pulpit to echo far-right conspiracy theorists, suggesting that this “invading” caravan has been financed and organized by shadowy enemies of the American people who are out to tear this country down.
“It’s going to be the election of the caravan,” as he told a rally in Montana. “You know what I’m talking about. You know what I’m talking about. We’re starting to find out ... a lot of money has been passing through to people to try to get to the border by election day … they wanted that caravan, and there are those that say that caravan didn’t just happen. It didn’t just happen. A lot of reasons, that caravan ....”
If you took those words seriously, if you believed that this truly was an invasion launched by enemies of this country, what would you do to stop it? More to the point, what wouldn’t you do? The Pittsburgh shooter cited the threat posed by that very same caravan of “invaders” and the false allegations of outside funding -- he believed it to come from Jews -- as his motivation for killing as many Jews as possible. His main argument with Trump was that Trump wasn’t willing to go far enough to solve it.
"I can't sit by and watch my people get slaughtered," the mass murderer wrote on social media. "Screw your optics, I'm going in."
Since then, Trump has expressed what appears to be sincere horror at the racist nature of the shooting. "This evil anti-Semitic attack is an assault on all of us,” he said. “It's an assault on humanity. It will require all of us working together to extract the hateful poison of anti-Semitism from the world.”
But that’s the thing about hate. You can't say it's OK to hate Group A, Group B and Group C, but then expect Group D to be exempt -- especially when Group D is Jewish. Hate is not a controlled burn; once it is ignited, once you fan the embers into open flame, it goes where the winds blow it and wherever it finds fuel to sustain itself. It respects no one.
When asked Friday night whether he was planning to tone down his inflammatory rhetoric, Trump pointedly declined. “Well, I think I've been toned down, if you want to know the truth. I could really tone it up. Because, as you know, the media has been extremely unfair to me and to the Republican Party.”
By Monday morning, he had made that warning real:
Trump is legitimizing and justifying anti-media violence here, arguing that if the media ceases reporting anti-Trump facts, the hostility and violence will cease as well. And if media doesn't toe the line that Trump wants to draw, well, I guess we'll deserve whatever we get, right Mister President?
This is not unfamiliar territory. For weeks at one point, my family and I had armed guards outside our home 24 hours a day after a white supremacist not only threatened me anonymously but pointed out -- correctly -- where my children practiced soccer. By Trump’s theory, I could have avoided the problem by not writing things that would anger that white supremacist, but by training and nature, that’s not my inclination, then or now.
This is a far, far better country than Trump believes it to be, but he is testing its character in ways that I once would not have believed possible. He and others behave as if hatred and fear are tools that they can carefully calibrate to produce the effects that they desire, and only those effects, and only on the targets that they select. Everything about human history teaches us otherwise. Everything about human history tells us we need to stop this spiral, and now.
I am reminded that 60 years ago this month, white supremacists bombed the Temple on Peachtree Street here in Atlanta.
“Here you see the end result of bigotry and intolerance, and whether we like it or not, those practicing rabble-rousing and demagoguery are the godfathers of the cross burners and the dynamiters,” Atlanta Mayor William B. Hartsfield said at the time.
"Let us face facts. This is a harvest. It is the crop of things sown," wrote AJC editor Ralph McGill, condemning political leaders and commentators "who in terms violent and inflammatory have repudiated their oaths and helped unloose this flood of hate and bombing."
"To be sure, none said go bomb a Jewish temple," McGill continued. But "you do not preach and encourage hatred for the Negro and hope to restrict it to that field. It is an old, old story. It is one repeated over and over again in history. When the wolves of hate are loosed on one people, then no one is safe."