It takes a special talent — an unprecedented talent, in fact — to make a presidential “healing” trip quite so hurtful. But give Donald Trump credit. You know he likes to brag about the size of his crowds. This time, he drew more than a thousand outside the Tree of Life synagogue just to protest his unwanted presence among the mourners in Pittsburgh.
Bill Clinton was both wanted and needed when he went to Oklahoma City. Same with George W. Bush at Ground Zero and Barack Obama at Newtown. Each of those presidents had his ups and deep downs in approval ratings. But we still looked to them to offer words of consolation because that’s a fundamental piece of the president’s job. Bush’s bullhorn speech from the Pile was probably the finest moment of his presidency. You could argue that Clinton revived a troubled presidency with his healing words at Oklahoma City. Could anyone ever forget Obama singing Amazing Grace in Charleston?
And yet, on the eve of Trump’s trip to Pittsburgh — which some Jewish leaders had asked him to delay, which the mayor had discouraged, which national and state politicians from both parties had wisely declined to attend — the president went full Donald, in behavior that can only be seen as an affront to the survivors of the massacre, to an entire community, and to the values that made it a target in the first place. That’s how you get to wounds-that-never-quite-heal levels of hurtful.
This is not hyperbole. This is the point where Trump’s profound lack of empathy intersects with raw pre-midterm electioneering. This is the point where Trump’s naked appeal to bigotry has been laid bare. This is the point where Trump chose to delay a speech Tuesday in order to go to Pittsburgh — putting aside a speech that was to reveal his plan to close the border so that those in the caravan “invasion” couldn’t reach the United States in to order seek asylum.
For some Jews, this couldn’t help but be a reminder of the MS St. Louis, the ship carrying more than 900 Jews from Germany in 1939 that was turned away first from Cuba, then from the United States, then from Canada. More than 250 of those on the ship would die in the Holocaust. You can read the book — Voyage of the Damned. Or watch the movie. Or watch Trump playing general with people’s lives.
For many Jews, for many (and you’d hope, most) other Americans, the consoler in chief can’t be the same person who responded to the neo-Nazi marchers in Charlottesville and to their chants of “Jews will not replace us” by saying there were very fine people on both sides.
Here is the consolation that Trump actually offered to Pittsburgh and the rest of us as the funerals began, to triple-down on the fear-mongering and the name-calling. On the very eve of the trip, the Trump administration ordered 5,200 troops to the border to meet the weeks-in-coming-if-it-ever-gets-here caravan of unarmed “invaders” trying to escape the violence of Central America. There is no invasion. There is no threat to America. There is no need for the U.S. Army. If you don’t believe me, here’s a clip of Fox News’ Shep Smith saying the same thing.
And then there is the right-wing trope we keep hearing that George Soros, the billionaire (and not coincidentally) Jewish financier, is paying those marching in the caravan. He’s not, of course, any more than “Middle Easterners” (the unsubtle code for terrorists) are marching.
Maybe it hadn’t occurred to Trump that the man who killed the 11 Jews in Squirrel Hill had written on social media that he was provoked by a Jewish refugee organization, HIAS, and its supporters at the Tree of Life synogogue. HIAS was formed in the 19th century to help Jews escape pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe. Eventually, HIAS moved its work to help all refugees, now including those in the caravan from Central America.
A few hours before his assault, Bowers wrote this about the caravan: “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.” He went in, shouting anti-Semitic slurs and eventually telling police, “I just want to kill Jews.”
Bowers wrote that he disliked Trump because Trump didn’t hate Jews. But on the matter of the “invaders,” this is what Trump tweeted two days after the massacre: “Many Gang Members and some very bad people are mixed into the Caravan headed to our Southern Border. Please go back, you will not be admitted to the United States unless you to through the legal process. This is an invasion of our Country and our Military is waiting for you!”
No one is suggesting that Trump is responsible for the deaths in Pittsburgh. It was some heavily armed unhinged anti-Semite. I doubt if Trump, who has Jewish grandchildren after all, is an anti-Semite himself. But as a Jew, I’m sure that he doesn’t understand Jews — certainly not these Jews, who are liberals, many of them, who believe in welcoming the stranger because their tradition insists they remember what it means to be a stranger. They identify with the oppressed because they know what it means to be oppressed. And they know, as Trump could never know, what Squirrel Hill is and what was taken from them. He has had days to address Squirrel Hill values, and he has never once tried.
Healer? Not a chance.
You can’t base your presidency on fear and division — and we all remember the infamous American carnage speech Trump delivered at his inauguration — and then talk about healing with any credibility. You can’t be a healer if, as president, you see that a crazed supporter has sent pipe bombs to your critics and then you spend days rhetorically attacking the same would-be targets. You can’t be a healer if you pile on — because that’s what you do — by claiming you would write an executive order to end birthright citizenship. There’s the problem of the 14th Amendment, of course — one of your major amendments — which says that if you’re born in America, you’re an American. But to Trump, that’s no more than a legal technicality when your only intent is to fire up the base before the midterms.
On the eve of the Pittsburgh trip, Trump went on Laura Ingraham’s show on Fox, not to appeal to our better angels, not to lament the continuing plague of gun violence, not to say that the level of political toxicity must be lowered, but to complain that The Washington Post had linked him to the pipe bomber yet hadn’t said anything linking Obama to the massacre at the African-American church in Charleston. He really said that. You can’t imagine it, but he did.
It’s hard sometimes to imagine any of this. But the problem is that the situation is growing increasingly real. We’re a week out from a midterm election that is a referendum on a desperate Trump, who is willing to say or do pretty much anything to rally his always more-than-willing base.
If the experts are right and Democrats take back the House, even as the relentless Mueller investigation continues to close in, you can expect Trump and his followers to grow ever more desperate. You can see what’s happening now. More fear-mongering. More scapegoating. More intolerance and much more hate. Now, if you can, if you can stomach it, just try to imagine what happens next.