Former Texas representative Beto O’Rourke hasn’t been high on my list of 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, but he jumped into the top tier on Sunday night, when after a day spent consoling victims of racist violence in his home town of El Paso, O’Rourke, appropriately, snapped.
A reporter asked him whether there was anything Donald Trump could say in his planned speech on Monday that would make things better in the Mexican border city, where on Saturday 21-year-old Patrick Crusius murdered 20 people and wounded 24 in a jihad against what he called an immigrant “invasion.”
‘What do you think? You know the shit he’s been saying. He’s been calling Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals. I don’t know, like, members of the press, what the fuck?’” He went on: “It’s these questions that you know the answers to. I mean, connect the dots about what he’s been doing in this country. He’s not tolerating racism, he’s promoting racism. He’s not tolerating violence, he’s inciting racism and violence in this country. So, you know, I just—I don’t know what kind of question that is.”
And that’s what I thought too, honestly, when I saw news outlets covering Trump descending from Marine One Sunday afternoon—after he essentially golfed through two massacres, including one in Dayton, Ohio, where the shooter’s motive still isn’t clear—as though he’d say something meaningful. At the bottom of the stairway from the helicopter, a marine stood at attention, just as he would for any other president, and so did the media, cameras and notebooks ready. Trump shared his trademark mix of lies, evasions, and word salad—he makes Sarah Palin look articulate—and it went out live to television watchers all over the country.
These rituals in which Trump is treated like any other president demean the memories of those who died in El Paso, at the Tree of Life and Poway synagogues, and those who might have died had the bombs that Trump supporter Cesar Sayoc sent to Democrats and the media detonated earlier this year.
Afterward, anchor people and reporters dutifully fact-checked Trump’s tarmac lies; some even noticed the absence of any mention of the racism that drove the El Paso murderer. But covering Trump’s return from golf as though it was newsworthy is just another way the media normalizes him.
On Monday morning, Trump had a better speech prepared. “In one voice, our nation must condemn racism, bigotry and white supremacy,” he intoned. “These sinister ideologies must be defeated. Hate has no place in America. Hatred warps the mind, ravages the heart and devours the soul.” But the fact that he called Dayton “Toledo” got more immediate attention, and mockery, than the hypocrisy of denouncing “white supremacy” when his administration advances it every day. “He really did set a different tone than he did in the past when it comes to condemning this hate,” an NBC White House correspondent claimed. In some quarters, Trump even got praise for using the term “white supremacy,” as though it heralded a change in his policies. It will not.
Yes, many reporters have noted that the language of the El Paso shooter’s online screed sounded a lot like Trump’s own. The New York Times has a feature about it this morning. The second line of his screed declared that “this attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.” We know Trump has used the word “invasion” over and over to describe the surge of desperate Latin American asylum seekers at the border. We also know that Trump has joked about violence against them, ranting at a rally in Florida that the Border Patrol can’t use guns against people crossing illegally.
“And don’t forget—we don’t let them and we can’t let them use weapons,” he said. “We can’t. Other countries do. We can’t. I would never do that. But how do you stop these people? You can’t. There’s—” When someone in the crowd yelled “Shoot them!” Trump made a joke out of it. “That’s only in the Panhandle you can get away with that stuff,” he quipped, as the crowd cheered. “Only in the Panhandle!”
In fact, even though the shooter says his immigrant-hatred “predate[s] Trump,” there are passages in which his rhetoric is hard to distinguish from the president’s. He went on: “The media is infamous for fake news. Their reaction to this attack will likely just confirm that.”
And on Monday morning Trump tweeted: “The Media has a big responsibility to life and safety in our Country. 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!”
The main rhetorical difference between the president and Crusius is that the latter has a better command of grammar.
Trump also used Twitter on Monday to tell Democrats he’d consider background check legislation the House passed—in exchange for “desperately needed immigration reform.” To Trump we know that means more border wall funding, an end to current family reunification and asylum policies, and sharp restrictions even on legal immigration. So Trump is trying to use a racist massacre to pass racist immigration policies. He left such policy proposals out of his Monday speech, but no doubt, they’ll be back.
Beto O’Rourke has the only correct response to Trump’s incitement, and the media’s consistent impulse to give him the benefit of the doubt that he’ll change his ways: What the fuck?