When the president of the United States speaks, Americans listen. That’s especially true in moments of crisis when strength and succor are required. Think: Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the Depression (“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”). Or Ronald Reagan after the Challenger disaster (They ” ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God’ “).
Contrast those stirring examples with the mean-spirited leadership style of President Donald Trump, whose record of public statements is pocked with coarse insults, disparaging rhetoric and bizarre equivocations. Mexican migrants, he said as a candidate, are “bringing crime. They’re rapists.” About Central Americans: “We cannot allow all of these people to invade our country.” And after a neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, Virginia, led to rioting, Trump failed to forcefully denounce white supremacy, claiming he saw “hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides.”
You likely recognize those quotations because the presidential bully pulpit reverberates, whether the sentiment is healing or toxic. A smattering of Trump’s name-calling vocabulary: Sad joke, loser, crazed lunatics, extraordinarily low IQ person, complete and total fraud. … On he rants, especially via Twitter and at political events, unloading his negative energy at perceived enemies and anyone else against whom he thinks he can score points by vilifying. Last month he told four congressional Democrats, all women of color, to “go back” to their homelands. These are not presidential words to be carved in marble.
Then came violence in the border city of El Paso, Texas, where a gunman killed 22 people and injured dozens. Authorities believe the suspect posted a hate-filled, anti-immigrant screed on the internet before opening fire. El Paso had been in the news because it’s the location of a federal immigration facility housing Central American migrants seeking asylum — the very kind of people Trump demonized as an invading force.
The president is not directly to blame for the shooting in El Paso. Perpetrators of violence are responsible for their actions. But two things are true about the impact of Trump’s bullying and belittling: He is doing damage to the culture of civility and tolerance in America by promoting nastiness as his personal political brand. And he’s failing in the traditional presidential role of providing moral leadership to the country.
Trump spoke Monday from the White House about El Paso, and condemned racism, bigotry and white supremacy. On Wednesday he visited hospitals in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, site of a second mass shooting. But he doesn’t have the credibility to meaningfully contribute to the healing that’s necessary. That’s because what he reads from a teleprompter or says to family members of victims is contradicted by his crazed, off-the-cuff language.
All the words of a leader matter. They can provide comfort and wisdom amid uncertainty, or spread mistrust and hate. Trump’s divisive rhetoric generates electricity among supporters at partisan events where the theme is: Vanquish political foes. It also spreads toxins. It’s beneath the dignity of high office. As the insults mount, Trump contributes to a national climate of intolerance. Because of him, the body politic is debased.
And as a result, when a terrible event occurs and Americans need inspirational words to guide them, the president is incapable of delivering an effective message of unity. His track record gets in the way. His voice rings hollow.
This is its own small national tragedy.