Terry H. Schwadron
Oct. 31, 2018
Well, it wasn’t “Amazing Grace.”
On the other hand, it wasn’t something offensive.
Instead, President Donald Trump’s ill-timed comfort visit to Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue was 18 minutes long, involved sustaining a somber face and a held tongue, and placing white roses and stones on the 11 temporary tombstones outside the synagogue with his wife, Melania, daughter, Ivanka, and son-in-law, Jared Kushner. They also stopped by the hospital.
Check. That one’s done. For extra points, the president managed to avoid a 2,000-person street protest from people who thought his presence was inappropriately timed and he remained silent about his own potential contributions to division rather than healing.
The congressional leadership on both sides blew off the trip, seeing obvious inappropriateness that the president could not. The focus should be on the victims, not on the president’s attempt to offer comfort. But then his schedule of campaign rallies was more important than any real attempt to offer sympathy to a hurting community.
This business of trying to offer solace, of trying to bring community together again after a rift by violence is more than a checkbox. It takes real work and real caring. It might take some change. The words being spoken at the simultaneous funerals were about as far from the Trump rally messages as different languages can be.
All in all, it could have been far worse for this empathy-free president to visit the site of a multiple fatality shooting that he insists had nothing to do with his intemperate, coarse, goading campaign speaking style. He could have gone to one of the first funerals, of course, though the families told the White House that they resented having the president there.
After the visit, any number of Pittsburghers were on cable saying that if the president truly cared, he would rein in the excesses of his speeches and actions that seem to make extremists of the right feel legitimized.
But then, last week, this same president could have called two former presidents, both Democrats, of course, or his 2016 political opponent, just to see if they were okay after finding out that pipe bombs had been sent to them in the mail by what turned out to be a fervent supporter of his who went beyond the presidential messages and took action. Bad action.
So, perhaps breezing by Pittsburgh just long enough to be seen in a photo at the shooting scene was fine. It allowed him to fulfil the required role as presidential consoler before heading off for the next campaign rally, where he once again would lean into his red-meat, attack bag to offer “lock-em-up” scraps to his faithful.
In the president’s defense, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders had all but yelled at reporters because they had reported that a lot of people see a connection between the rally messages and the eventual violence that actually happened. It was irresponsible, she said. And she took up the president’s message that it is the press that is largely to blame for any divisions in the country for failing to produce “positive” news about the president.
I suppose that the “positive” version of yesterday would say that the president took time out of a busy schedule of saving the nation’s economy, of setting international trade agreements right, of settling human rights abuses by Saudis, and of protecting the borders from a dwindling caravan of families fleeing from hunger and violence by sending 5,000 troops to the border, to open his heart for 18 minutes to victims of the worst anti-Semitic attack in the nation’s history.
That “positive” report might not have to note that this was a de rigeurvisit a week before elections, that the president’s anti-immigrant attacks on non-white Central Americans and Middle Easterners were continuing, that Democrats and other groups — the shooting suspect decided that meant the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society — who work with refugees.
Still, you have to wonder if his heart wasn’t really in it, why did the president even bother going to Pittsburgh, where people really didn’t seem to want to see him.
We’ve seen this pattern plenty before. The same Trump went to Puerto Rico to throw out paper towels after two killer hurricanes. The same Trump proclaims the dominance of tradition, only to set border police to separate migrant families at the border. The same president describes himself as law and order personified, only to repeatedly denounce the FBI and the nation’s intelligence leadership.
The lingering feelings about these shootings in Pittsburgh and in a Kroger’s market in Kentucky and the pipe bombs last week are simply that they were avoidable. This president had no direct involvement, but his distancing from any contribution in setting a tone that those few extremists might run with is more than disturbing.
But then, maybe I shouldn’t give that more than 18 minutes’ thought.