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El Paso – the United States’ descent into xenophobic barbarism (part 18)

By Europaeus *

Continued from Part 17

Reform, What Reform?

It would be quite difficult to match President Trump’s clumsy rhetoric on the occasion of events such as the El Paso massacre, followed by the Dayton killing.

In the wake of twin mass shootings over the weekend, on 5 August 2019 President Trump denounced ‘white supremacy’ and, citing the threat of ‘racist hate’, he summoned the nation to address what he called a link between the recent carnage and violent video games, mental illness and Internet bigotry. But he stopped well short of endorsing the kind of broad gun control measures that activists, Democrats and some Republicans have sought for years, such as tougher background checks for gun buyers and the banning of some weapons and accessories such as high-capacity magazines. And while he warned of “the perils of the internet and social media,” he offered no recognition of his own use of those platforms to promote his brand of divisive politics. Instead, he focused on a rising intolerance that he has been slow to condemn in the past. “In one voice our nation must condemn racism, bigotry and white supremacy,” President Trump said at the White House. “These sinister ideologies must be defeated.”

It seemed unlikely that President Trump’s 10-minute speech, coming after one of the most violent weekends in recent American history, would reposition him as a unifier when many Americans hold him responsible for inflaming racial division. He took no responsibility for the atmosphere of division, nor did he recognise his own reluctance to warn of the rise of white nationalism until now.

Speaking at a lectern beneath a portrait of George Washington in the Diplomatic Reception Room, Mr. Trump read from a teleprompter as he denounced Crusius’ bilious anti-Hispanic manifesto as being “consumed by racist hate.” He also called it part of an “evil contagion” spreading online.

“These barbaric slaughters are an assault upon our communities, an attack upon our nation and a crime against all of humanity,” President Trump said of the massacres. Connor Betts, the Dayton gunman is not known to have had a political motive.

President Trump, who visited Dayton and El Paso on 7 August, took no questions. He also did not repeat his call on Twitter earlier in the morning for Republicans and Democrats to work together to strengthen background checks for prospective gun buyers. That outraged Democratic leaders in Congress, who quickly accused President Trump of retreating from more substantive action on gun control under political pressure. “It took less than three hours for the president to back off his call for stronger background check legislation,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader, said in a statement. House Democrats passed such a measure in February 2019, but the Republican-controlled Senate has not acted on it.

On 5 August even some Republicans called for that blockade to end. Senators Susan Margaret Collins of Maine, Mike K. Braun of Indiana and Mike Braun of Indiana, all Republican, said that a bill to expand background checks for gun purchases should be brought to a vote. Senator Toomey and Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, separately called President Trump to discuss the background checks bill that they had drafted after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, only to see it fall to a filibuster. “The president showed a willingness to work with us on the issue of strengthening background checks.” the senators said in a joint statement.

President Trump’s first comments, made in early-morning Twitter posts, set some gun control advocates up for disappointment.

From his golf resort in Bedminster, New Jersey, President Trump tweeted several expressions of sympathy, along with more combative shots at the news media and his critics.

On 4 August President Trump’s aides recognised that he needed to do more. Some advisers suggested that background checks would be an easy, bipartisan measure to endorse, but President Trump was uncertain. When early drafts of his remarks began circulating, they did not mention background checks or immigration, according to two persons briefed on them. So aides were startled to discover that the President, sitting in the White House residence, had posted a tweet linking the two issues.

In a small meeting with President before the speech several aides argued that the linkage was a mistake, and the President dropped both the immigration idea and the call for background checks from his prepared remarks.

It was not immediately clear what other gun control proposals President Trump had been referring to on Twitter. The House of Representatives had passed back-to-back bills on firearms soon after Democrats took control, voting in February 2019 to require background checks for all gun buyers, including those at gun shows and on the internet, and to extend waiting periods for would-be gun buyers flagged by the existing instant-check system.

Instead of focusing on measures to limit the sale of firearms, President Trump’s later remarks at the White House ticked through a list of proposals that Republicans have long endorsed as alternatives. They included unspecified action to address “gruesome and grisly video games” and “a culture that celebrates violence.” Trying for a somber tone at the White House, President Trump repeated his past endorsement of so-called red-flag laws which would allow for the confiscation of firearms from people found to be mentally ill. He also said mental health laws should be changed to allow for the involuntary confinement of people at risk of committing violence. But he gave no indication of how he would pursue any of his goals. President Trump also warned that the Internet and social media provide “a dangerous avenue to radicalize disturbed minds and perform demented acts.” But the President has himself amplified right-wing voices online with histories of racism and bigotry. President Trump also emphasised steps the better to identify and respond to signs of mental illness which could lead to violence, repeating a familiar conservative formulation that de-emphasises the significance of widely available firearms.

In Texas and Ohio, it is legal to buy military-style high-powered firearms, to use them with large-capacity magazines and to carry them in public, with a permit.

“Mental illness and hatred pulls the trigger, not the gun,” President Trump said. Calling those who carry out mass shootings “mentally ill monsters”, he also said that he would be directing the Justice Department to propose legislation calling for the death penalty for “those who commit hate crimes and mass murders.” He added that he had “asked the F.B.I. to identify all further resources they need to investigate and disrupt hate crimes and domestic terrorism – whatever they need.”

Gun control groups reacted sharply to Mr. Trump’s address. “Let’s be clear: This is not about mental health. It’s not about video games. It’s not about movies,” said Mr. John Feinblatt, the president of ‘Everytown for gun safety’, a gun control group. “Those are all N.R.A. talking points. This is about easy access to guns.”

President Trump has previously denounced racism with scripted remarks which sounded out of tune with his typical language. After the killing of a counter-protester at a white-power rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, he called ‘white supremacists’ “repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.”

But those remarks followed earlier off-the-cuff comments by the President, who had been criticised for not more forcefully denouncing the ‘Unite the Right’ rally, which was organised by neo-Nazis. Instead he condemned “hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides.” President Trump later declared that the event had “some very fine people on both sides.” Aides said that he was referring to nonviolent protesters defending Southern heritage, and that he was angry that the news media had not paid more attention to left-wing Antifa activists who engaged in violence.

In March 2019, after a ‘white supremacist’ killed 51 people at two mosques in New Zealand, President Trump said he did not “really” see a rising threat from ‘white nationalism’. “It’s a small group of people,” he added. The President has also previously declared himself a supporter of stronger gun control, only to retreat from the issue. After a gunman killed 17 at a high school in Parkland, Florida, in 2018, President Trump startled Republican lawmakers that February when on live television, he appeared to embrace comprehensive gun control legislation which would expand background checks, keep guns from mentally ill people, and restrict gun sales for some young adults. But he made little effort to follow through.

Some of the Democrats campaigning for their party’s presidential nomination condemned President Trump for not calling the El Paso attack a ‘white supremacist’ act of domestic terrorism and blamed the White House for fuelling ‘white nationalist’ sentiment.

No federal agency is responsible for designating domestic terrorism organisations, as has been the case for international terrorism. Similarly, there is no criminal ‘rubric’ of domestic terrorism, and suspects who are by definition considered domestic terrorists are charged under other laws, such as hate crime, gun and conspiracy statutes. According to F.B.I. statistics, there have been eight mass shootings in the United States since 2017 in which the attackers espoused ‘white supremacist’ views. (M. Crowley and M. Haberman, ‘Trump condemns white supremacy but ‘stops short of major gun control,’ The New York Times, 5 August 2019).

As professor Lesley Russell, an Adjunct Associate Professor at the Menzies Centre for Health Policy at the University of Sydney, puts it: “Timing might means that [the El Paso and Dayton] shootings could have more impact than usual.”

During that first weekend in August 2019 Americans went to bed saddened by yet another gun massacre, this time in El Paso, Texas, only to wake the following day to news of a similar crime in Dayton, Ohio. While the communities mourned and the media endlessly debated the causes, the political responses were again highlighting the United States’ deep political divide, and Donald J. Trump again revealed himself as a president who is unable either to unite the nation or to focus on the root causes of gun violence. The rest of the world looks on in dismay.

On the face of it, that weekend’s carnage might seem unlikely dramatically to change the gun-control debate in America. That did not happen on 14 December 2012 when twenty-six people, including twenty children, were gunned down at Sandy Hook elementary school of Newtown, Connecticut, or on 15 February 2018 when seventeen students and staff were shot to death at a high school in Parkland, Florida. It did not happen when gunmen invaded religious sanctuaries and murdered Christians in Texas as it occurred on 5 November 2017 at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs; or when the target were Jews in Tree of Life Congregation on 27 October 2018 in Pennsylvania, or Sikhs at a Temple near Milwaukee, Wisconsin on 5 August 2012. And it did not happen when shootings occurred at military bases – at a rate of an one mass shooting per month since 2009, and in an Orlando, Florida gay night-club on 12 June 2016.

The President and Congress were away from Washington on August vacations, and it seemed that nothing would happen for at least several more weeks. The contrast to New Zealand’s response to the Christchurch massacre could not be starker. Americans seem increasingly resigned to living in communities in which no trip to a school, to a place of worship, to a shopping centre, or to a festival is safe. Indeed, a 7-8 August 2019 poll found that 78 per cent of Americans expected another mass shooting within three months, including 49 per cent who said one was ‘highly likely.’

While pleas ‘to do something’ were being heard in El Paso and Dayton, the once-active student voices of Parkland had become more muted and the parents of children who died at Sandy Hook struggle to keep the issue of gun control on the political agenda. The battle also comes at a cost: in 2019 two survivors of the Parkland shooting and the father of a child killed at Sandy Hook elementary school suicided. As was the case after the Parkland shooting, President Trump has shown no leadership and provided no comfort and consolation, seemingly veering between wanting to do more and worrying that doing so could prompt a revolt from his political base. (F. Hiatt, ‘There’s never been a president like Trump. Just look at his gun-control record’, The Washington Post, 11 August 2019).

One began to wonder: incompetence, indecision – simply, worst, true indifference?

President Trump has advanced – rather tentatively – a mishmash of ideas to reduce gun violence, many of them ill-defined and lacking either evidence or Republican support. Regardless of whatever he really thought or wanted to do, he was clearly constrained by White House aides and hamstrung by the N.R.A. and Senate leader Mitch McConnell.

Senator McConnell, whose obstruction on this issue even of bills with bipartisan support has been epic, intimated that he would not call the Senate back early to consider new gun legislation. In doing so, he rejected a plea from more than 200 mayors, including those from El Paso and Dayton. Nor would he bring any gun-control legislation to the floor without securing widespread Republican support – surely code for saying nothing will be done.

Yet there are a number of reasons why it is just possible that August 2019 could be a tipping point in this excruciatingly painful story.

Firstly, this is an issue that the Democrat presidential candidates have seized and will continue to push, keeping it front and centre in the debates. The biggest Democrat presidential field in history is also the most united ever in favour of gun control, and candidates are offering competing and aggressive gun safety plans.

Secondly, while the N.R.A. is still a major force, its power is waning. It has failed to get its top priorities signed into law even under President Trump; it is experiencing internecine power battles, allegations of financial misconduct and embarrassing headlines; and it is being outspent by a growing and emboldened gun-control lobby.

Thirdly, there is growing recognition of the role that extreme ‘white nationalism’ has played in radicalising the perpetrators of gun massacres. The overt racism which drove the shooting in El Paso, and the influence of President Trump’s demagoguery about Latino “invasion” in the shooter’s manifesto have frightened and galvanised many Americans, especially those in Hispanic communities who feel increasingly unsafe and unprotected. Many feel that radicalised ‘white nationalism’ has placed them in its crosshairs, and that this means, for them, “the death of the American dream.” America’s sixty million or so Latinos, who are more likely to vote for Democrats, account for 18 per cent of the national population. That is a powerful voting bloc.

Fourthly, that and other demographic features are changing the electoral map. In Texas, a growing Hispanic population and an influx of younger people attracted by new industries could see the state turn from Republican red to politically purple. In the 2018 mid-term elections a surge in Hispanic turnout in that state helped Democrats make significant gains. The likelihood of this happening again in 2020 is highlighted by the recent announcements by four members of the Texas congressional delegation that they will not contest their seats next year. The 2018 mid-terms also highlighted the continuing collapse of support for the Republican Party in the suburbs, especially among white women. An analysis shows that the majority of the forty-one seats gained by Democrats in 2018 were predominantly suburban. (D. Montgomery, ‘Suburban voters gave Democrats their House majority,’ CityLab, 7 November 2018).

Now, suburban areas of Atlanta, Dallas, Houston and Philadelphia, in states that Donald J. Trump won in 2016 are seen as increasingly leaning Democrat. A growing economy is not overcoming residents’ dislike for President Trump’s violent rhetoric and behaviour, their fears for everyday safety and their dismay that schoolchildren need to learn lockdown procedures.

Fifthly, even in the absence of presidential and congressional action, many states are enacting their own gun-control laws. (B. Provenzano, ‘As the Republican Senate blocks reform, states pass their own gun-control laws,’ Pacific Standard, 21 June 2019).

This year, states hit by gun violence have acted to require background checks on all gun sales: Nevada and New Mexico, to mandate the responsible storage of firearms and prohibit the sale and possession of bump stocks: Nevada, and to keep firearms out of the hands of individuals who pose an imminent threat to themselves or others: Colorado, District of Columbia and New York. Increasing numbers of state legislatures are rejecting bills which would allow teachers to be armed, guns on college campuses, and ‘stand your ground’ responses which encourage the escalation of violence.

Finally, and sadly, while President Trump and the Republicans may think that diversion, delay and denial will mean that the anger and attention and push for action will pass, the chances are that these sentiments will be fired up by yet another massacre. On average, four or more people have been killed in a mass shooting every forty-seven days since 17 June 2015, when a young ‘white supremacist’ killed nine people at a Bible study class in a historic African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina. (B. Berkowitz, A. Blanco, B. R. Mayes, K. Auerbach and D. Kindler, ‘More and deadlier: mass shooting trends in America,’ The Washington Post, 5 August 2019).

But there are other statistics which go unmentioned in the discussion, and are equally important.

The pressure these factors have brought to bear on President Trump and Senator McConnell have recently seen some changes in their public pronouncements, and it seems that they may be now more inclined to take steps towards some substantive action. Whether this results in new laws and regulations remains to be seen.

President Trump has faced major criticism for his harsh language, his lack of empathy and his rude demeanour during the visits to Dayton and El Paso, and in his Twitter bitter attacks on politicians from those cities. Speeches from presidential candidates, including former Vice-president Joe Biden and Senator Cory Booker, served as reminders of what a President should offer his country at such times.

Recently, at a forum in Iowa, sixteen of the Democrats running in the presidential primary spoke out against the obstruction practiced by President Trump, Sen. McConnell and the N.R.A. They also voiced support for a common set of gun-control proposals, including a requirement for universal background checks and a ban on military-style semiautomatic rifles.

President Trump is reportedly furious that his reputation has been damaged by charges of racism and that his language has been linked to the massacre at El Paso. Sen. McConnell is facing public outrage over his failure to act on gun control and accusations that his pandering to the N.R.A. has cost people’s lives. It is likely that polling is also influencing them. A majority of those surveyed in a recent poll, including 59 per cent of Republicans, said that the Senate should pass the two gun-control measures to tighten background checks on gun purchasers approved in February by the House of Representatives. (Poll: Who’s to blame for mass shootings? On that, some bipartisan agreement, USA Today, 7 August 2019).

Meanwhile President Trump was claiming “tremendous support for really common sense, sensible, important background checks” and arguing that Sen. McConnell and senators who are “hard line on the second amendment” are “totally onboard.” And Sen. McConnell confirmed that President Trump was “anxious to get an outcome and so am I.”

If President Trump supported such legislation and Sen. McConnell were willing to bring it up in the Senate, it would signal a fundamental change in the gun-control debate. It would also signal that Republicans were, finally, listening to the voters.

Even before the shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Gallup reported the highest level of support for stricter gun laws in twenty-five years. Universal background checks were supported by more than 90 per cent of Americans, and only 23 per cent of all voters oppose an assault weapons ban. Surveys from a variety of sources all show a rise in the number of Americans who say they believe controlling gun violence is more important than protecting gun rights. (N. Cohn and M. Sanger-Katz, ‘On guns, public opinion and public policy often diverge’, The New York Times, 10 August 2019).

In a recent Greenberg Quinlan Rosner research of likely 2020 voters, more than one in four people said their views on guns have changed within the past five years, and of these, 78 per cent – and 70 per cent of Republicans – have moved towards supporting stronger gun laws.

In February 2018, just after the massacre at the high school in Parkland, Florida, President Trump met with members of Congress and chastised them for being “petrified” of the N.R.A. and for doing nothing on gun control. “It’s time that a president stepped up, and we haven’t had them,” he said. “And I’m talking Democrat and Republican presidents – they have not stepped up.” Now, more than twenty months and too many deaths later, it is time the President took his own advice. (L. Russell, ‘Could this be a tipping point for gun control?’, insidestory.org.au, 13 August 2019).

It is safe to say, at this point, that President Trump views on many subjects reveal, if not an instability of judgment, an ambivalence – a duplicity, perhaps? And that seems quite generous. He is being regarded as erratic, unpredictable, often unmovable – worst: temperamentally unfit for the position as president, unstable, unmoored, and by that one means ‘unhinged’. In the words of professor Kenneth Surin of Duke University, President Trump is an “unhinged Orange Creepoid”. (K. Surin, ‘Ukania: the land where the Queen’s son has his shoelaces ironed by his valet’, CounterPunch, 15 November 2018).

A question seems quite legitimate, certainly natural, even caring: “What is wrong with him?” The question seems to plague even the most distracted observer.

During the past 23 months the Trump Administration has proven as chaotic and destructive as its opponents feared, and the man at the centre of it all remains a cipher.

Having considered and overcome the ‘Goldwater rule’, by which all members of the American Psychiatric Association’ are constrained, 27 mental health professionals have collected their thoughts in a publication: The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President, Thomas Dunne Books, New York, N.Y. 2017).

The contributors were deeply conscious of the importance of observing the principle established by the ‘Goldwater rule’. It was set down at the time of the 1964 presidential campaign, when a magazine published a survey of psychiatrists’ views on Republican nominee Senator Barry Goldwater. That rule is contained in section 7 in the American Psychiatric Association ‘s Principles of Medical Ethics, which states that it is unethical for a psychiatrist to give a professional opinion about a public figure whom s/he has not examined in person, and from whom s/he has not obtained consent to discuss their mental health in public statements.

Continued tomorrow … (Part 19)

 

* Europaeus landed in Australia over fifty years ago. Except for the blue skies and starry nights between 02.12.1972 and 10.11.1975 the place has been constantly overwhelmed by what Hannah Arendt called the ‘sand storm’ – a metaphor for totalitarianism.

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