Once upon a time, when residents of the United States found themselves under attack from those looking to do us harm, Americans sought comfort, assurance, and leadership from the person duly elected to provide all of the above.
“We know somehow that what happened to you has pierced the soul of America,” said President Bill Clinton, on May 21, 1999, shortly after the killings of 13 people at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado.
“The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace. These terrorists don’t represent peace. They represent evil and war,” said President George W. Bush on September 17, 2001, standing inside the Islamic Center of Washington, D.C., six days after the deadliest attack on American soil.
“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, That saved a wretch like me, I once was lost, but now am found,” sang President Barack Obama on June 26, 2015, in an impromptu chorus with a mourning crowd at the funeral for Rev. Clementa Pinckney, one of the nine victims of the Emanuel A.M.E. church massacre in Charleston, South Carolina.
“Fake News has contributed greatly to the anger and rage that has built up over many years. News coverage has got to start being fair, balanced and unbiased, or these terrible problems will only get worse!” said Donald Trump on Twitter, 48 hours after a white supremacist murdered more than 20 people and uploaded a manifesto that echoed some of Trump’s own speeches and tweets.
What the United States needs in times of tragedy and sorrow is a unifier, what some have dubbed a “consoler in chief.” It’s a role that has been fulfilled to great effect by even the least popular presidents. Bush’s remarks in the immediate aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks were viewed as a unifying balm to the nation — even by many who disliked his politics. His approval rating, languishing at 51% just before the attacks, shot up to 90% in less than two weeks, according to Gallup.
Trump, of course, is but a pale facsimile of those who came before him, but that hasn’t stopped his allies — and an alarming number of media figures — from trying to shoehorn him into the same “consoler in chief” role that his predecessors occupied with varying measures of aplomb.
Not only has Trump proven to be incapable of acting as a unifier, but the very act of uniting Americans is antithetical to his worldview. To unify is to strip Trump of what might be his most prominent innate skill — driving people apart.
Witness his reaction to Obama’s call to root out the kind of racism that was at the core of Saturday’s shooting in El Paso. Obama, in a statement shared via Twitter, called out those who sow divisions between people, without naming any names.
“All of us have to send a clarion call and behave with the values of tolerance and diversity that should be the hallmark of our democracy,” Obama said. “We should soundly reject language coming out of the mouths of any of our leaders that feeds a climate of fear and hatred or normalizes racist sentiments; leaders who demonize those who don’t look like us, or suggest that other people, including immigrants, threaten our way of life, or refer to other people as sub-human, or imply that America belongs to just one certain type of people….It has no place in our politics and our public life. And it’s time for the overwhelming majority of Americans of goodwill, of every race and faith and political party, to say as much — clearly and unequivocally.”
How easy it would have been for Trump to simply hit the retweet button. Or say nothing at all. Instead, he went out of his way to attack his predecessor. You know, unity.
“Did George Bush ever condemn President Obama after Sandy Hook. President Obama had 32 mass shootings during his reign. Not many people said Obama is out of Control. Mass shootings were happening before the President even thought about running for Pres.” @kilmeade @foxandfriends
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 6, 2019
Now, this isn’t to say Trump isn’t going through the motions. Unlike the explicit overtures he made to neo-Nazis and white nationalists in 2017 after they murdered someone in Charlottesville, Virginia, Trump read a carefully worded statement on a teleprompter this week condemning the kind white supremacy and racism that his own words have tacitly encouraged. Astonishingly, his hollow comments were enough to appease, among others, the editors at The New York Times who initially ran a front-page story under the headline “TRUMP URGES UNITY VS. RACISM” before widespread public shock and ridicule shamed them to change it in later editions of the print paper.
But Trump can’t even cosplay as a president convincingly. In one of his first remarks about the El Paso massacre — on Twitter, naturally — he expressed sadness over the loss of life while in the same breath reiterating the need for his racist brand of immigration reform, the very rhetoric that inspired a gunman to open fire on a largely Latinx community with the intent to murder as many people as possible.
In times of national mourning, presidents often travel to the sites of tragedy to comfort those communities that are suffering most. Clinton was welcomed to Oklahoma City after the 1995 bombing to deliver a national prayer service address. Bush stood atop the ruins of lower Manhattan with a bullhorn and was lauded by New Yorkers. Obama, whose “Amazing Grace” had much of the nation in tears, was met with a standing ovation after delivering yet another set of remarks to grievers in Killeen, Texas, following a shooting at Fort Hood that killed 13 people.
After a white nationalist killed 11 worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh last October, Trump was asked not to visit. He went anyway, and was greeted with protests.
On Wednesday, Trump plans to visit El Paso and Dayton. He likely will be met with more protests by more grieving Americans who want no part of him.