Trump Reverts to Form in the Face of Pittsburgh’s Tragedy

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- “I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” President Donald Trump said last year, when he explained why he was withdrawing from a global climate change accord.

Eleven Pittsburgh citizens were murdered four days ago because they were Jewish, and the president traveled to their city on Tuesday, his wife and children in tow, to pay his respects. He visited despite the fact that leaders of both political parties declined to join him on the trip, and despite requests from many local Jewish residents and community leaders that he stay away.

“The gunman who tore apart our neighborhood believed your lies about the immigrant caravan in Mexico,” said a statement from one Jewish group. “He believed anti-Semitic lies that Jews were funding the caravan.”

A cluster of Pittsburgh residents gathered Tuesday near the synagogue where the murders occurred, awaiting Trump’s arrival. “Words have meaning,” they shouted.

Of course they do.

And in the slow, torturous weeks leading up to the midterm elections the president has unleashed a torrent of words. He has packaged them to appeal to his political base, he’s crafted them to smack of the racism, vitriol and division he’s trafficked in for decades, and he’s deployed them in increasingly desperate measures reflecting his frustration and recognition that events — and perhaps the electorate — are conspiring against him.

“Republicans are doing so well in early voting, and at the polls, and now this ‘Bomb’ stuff happens and the momentum greatly slows — news not talking politics,” he tweeted recently. “Very unfortunate, what is going on.”

Let’s parse that tweet. The president — referring to a series of pipe bombs sent last week to a media organization he purports to loathe, CNN, and a handful of Democratic political opponents and critics he has routinely slagged — calls it “this ‘Bomb’ stuff.” He regrets the bomb stuff, but not because lives were at risk. He regrets it because he felt he had favorable political momentum and life — via the actions of an unhinged bomber enamored of Trump’s noxious sloganeering — got in the way and changed the discussion. “Very unfortunate.”

The bomb threats gave the media a subject to cover that evoked the more virulent contours of the American landscape. They also reminded voters of the political violence Trump has often stoked while also distracting them from two bits of demagoguery he already had been unspooling.

The first of those efforts involved describing a caravan of Central American migrants thousands of miles from the U.S. border as the latest threat to national security (“an invasion of our Country”). Trump, without any evidence, described the migrants in mid-October as populated by “criminals and unknown Middle Easterners.” This wasn’t his first attempt to sensationalize that threat, either. He warned of a different caravan threat back in April. Although that group eventually dissipated, chatter about it among Trump supporters and friendly media pundits set in motion a new myth that the president never bothered to dispel: The caravan was funded by a wealthy Jewish financier, George Soros.

As attention turned away from Trump’s manufactured caravan threat, he recently heightened the drama by ordering more than 5,000 soldiers to the southern border to intercept the “invasion.” Operation Faithful Patriot, as the mission is reportedly to be named, promises to be tricky: It’s clearly a political ploy (raising the question of why taxpayers rather than, say, the Republican Party, should shoulder the cost of deploying the troops) and the military is largely forbidden from getting involved in domestic law enforcement anyhow.

Trump’s second effort to stir up the white voting bloc that shares his fear of outsiders and people of color came early last week when he let it be known that he was a “nationalist.” Trump, who once kept a volume of Hitler’s speeches by his bedside and has invoked Nazi and Stalinist phrases to smear his critics, surely understands the Aryan echoes that come with labeling himself a “nationalist.” But whatever mojo he hoped to gain with voters from mucking about in Nazism ran up against the unexpected specter of bomb threats and, most searingly, a neo-Nazi’s murder spree in Pittsburgh.

Trump hasn’t been one to let tragedy force him to put self-aggrandizement or politics aside. In the wake of the international outcry that greeted the recent murder of Jamal Khashoggi, Trump was more eager to defend Saudi Arabia against critics wondering about the kingdom’s role in the journalist’s death than he was about getting to the bottom of the affair.

Whatever sense of goodwill or national unity Trump may have been trying to create on Tuesday by visiting Pittsburgh was tempered by statements that Axios published the same day in which the president said he planned to end birthright citizenship in the U.S. via an executive order. (Because the 14th Amendment deems anyone born in the U.S. a citizen, and Congress is in charge of granting citizenship, the president has no hope of meeting his goal through an executive order; on the other hand, he successfully used the media to telegraph to his supporters that he was still trying to make America a home for his kind of Americans.)

Amid all of this, it appears that Trump advisers don’t believe Republicans will keep control of the House of Representatives and are instead targeting their efforts on shoring up vulnerable Senate seats ahead of next week’s midterms. That’s a scenario the president himself certainly recognizes even if he’s unlikely to fully embrace it until election results are in. In the meantime, expect the Nationalist-in-Chief to continue to traffic in the campaign tactics he knows best: fear, bigotry and exclusion.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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.”

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