Pittsburgh was a long time ago. Pittsburgh is not supposed to be in the news, not here in Hollywood. Many of us were born there, grew up there, and then left for the real world. Ross Township just north of the city was just a blank and probably still is. There was no point in hanging around. That may be true of McKees Rocks too, where the eminently decent Republican governor of Ohio was born and raised, and then left for the larger world. Still there are new movies about Fred Rogers – Mister Rogers – the decent man with the ultimately decent children’s show that made Pittsburgh seem decent too. He lived on the east side of the city, in Squirrel Hill, an odd place for a Presbyterian minister who was a lifelong Republican to live. That’s a Jewish community, but then the people there are decent and fair-minded and welcoming, just like Fred Rogers, so that’s not so surprising. Everyone is welcome. Let’s talk. Let’s argue. Let’s laugh. It’ll be fun. It’s that kind of place. We all knew that, way back when.
But that’s why Pittsburgh is in the national news, and the international news. The Washington Post reports that well enough. That community has its limits. Someone is finally not welcome there:
President Trump visited a grief-stricken Pittsburgh on Tuesday in a trip meant to unify after tragedy, but his arrival provoked protests from residents and consternation from local officials in the aftermath of the synagogue shooting that left 11 people dead.
The hastily planned day trip – which the city’s mayor urged Trump not to make – was executed with no advance public itinerary and without congressional and local politicians. Some had declined to accompany the president, and others were not invited.
And it didn’t go well:
Trump did not speak publicly during his brief trip, instead quietly paying tribute at Tree of Life synagogue by laying flowers for the 11 victims and visiting a hospital to see officers who were wounded in Saturday’s shooting. But Trump’s trip to the area so soon after the attack tore open political tensions in the largely Democratic city, as residents angered by Trump’s arrival protested even as the first couple tried to keep a low profile during the solemn, afternoon visit.
“The sense in the community is that they didn’t think this was a time for a political photo shoot,” said Rep. Mike Doyle (D), whose congressional district covers the Squirrel Hill neighborhood where the synagogue is located. “There are strong feelings in the community about him and the divisive nature of his rhetoric.”
Of course there are strong feelings:
Trump has faced charges in recent days that his harsh political tone and effort to stoke public fears about immigrants has fomented a rising right-wing extremism embraced by the man charged in the synagogue shooting and by the suspect arrested last week after a series of bombs were mailed to prominent critics of the president. Trump has pushed back, saying the media is responsible for the growing tensions across the country.
That bland little paragraph doesn’t capture the nastiness. Trump again and again has agreed with and amplified the grievances of the shooter – our nation is being “invaded” by that small caravan of mothers and children working its way north through Mexico, an invasion funded by George Soros, the rich Jewish globalist banker out to wipe out the traditional American way of life. And that may seem like a divisive thing to say, but Trump has been saying no, it’s the press, the enemy of the people, that is causing all the divisiveness – by attacking Donald Trump all the time about everything – and they’d better shape up or he will do something about that.
And that set the scene for this:
As the president touched down in southwestern Pennsylvania on Tuesday, almost 2,000 demonstrators assembled not far from where some of the shooting’s victims had been buried that day. The relatives of at least one victim declined to meet with Trump, pointing to his “inappropriate” remarks immediately after the shooting, when the president suggested the shooting could have been avoided if the synagogue had had an armed guard.
He did say this was their own damned fault – they didn’t have armed guards everywhere for every service and every event. They didn’t like that much, but no one liked any of this:
City officials said they were concerned about protests, which occurred on the same day as funerals for some of the victims, and were not involved in planning the visit – learning about it only when White House press secretary Sarah Sanders announced it Monday.
The White House also declined to invite two Democratic officials who represent the area – Doyle and Sen. Robert J. Casey Jr.
“We received no call or any kind of correspondence,” Doyle said.
Everyone had been blindsided, but they didn’t want to be there anyway:
A spokesman for the city’s Democratic mayor, Bill Peduto, said he was invited to appear with the president but declined. Peduto had urged Trump not to visit Pittsburgh until after the funerals for the victims, saying, “All attention [Tuesday] should be on the victims.”
The White House had asked the top four congressional leaders – House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) – to accompany Trump to Pittsburgh, but all declined, according to three officials familiar with the invitations.
It seems no one wanted to touch this, for good reason:
Trump arrived shortly before 4 p.m., greeted by two people at Pittsburgh International Airport: Pennsylvania Air National Guard Col. Mark Goodwill and his wife, Michele. Traveling with Trump were first lady Melania Trump; daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner, senior White House advisers who are Jewish; Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin; Chief of Staff John F. Kelly; and Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to the United States.
Inside the synagogue, Trump and his wife lit candles in honor of each of the 11 victims – but did not enter the crime scene area, according to the White House. The first couple also placed a white flower and a small stone on stars outside the synagogue that had been erected in memory of the victims – a somber moment punctuated by occasional shouts from protesters.
There were lots of those:
Trump’s remarks and incendiary rhetoric in office contributed to the pushback his visit received before Air Force One touched down. Tens of thousands of people signed an open letter from a progressive Jewish group based in Pittsburgh saying he would not be welcome “until you fully denounce white nationalism” and “cease your assault on immigrants and refugees.”
About an hour before Trump arrived, more than 100 protesters jammed onto a street corner in Squirrel Hill, the predominantly Jewish neighborhood where the synagogue is located and many victims lived.
“This didn’t happen in a vacuum,” Ardon Shorr said. “There is a growing trend of white nationalism. And that has been enabled by Trump, who traffics in the kind of conspiracy theories that we know were foremost in the mind of the shooter last Saturday.”
But this was the real problem:
“He refused to cancel his rally when it would have been the decent thing to cancel the rally,” said Jonathan Sarney, 72, referring to Trump’s campaign stop in Murphysboro, Ill., held the same day the shooting occurred. “And now he’s coming to intrude on the funerals when it’s an indecent thing to do.”
Fred Rogers made Pittsburgh seem decent. Squirrel Hill made Pittsburgh seem decent. And then Pittsburgh was decent. Donald Trump doesn’t understand the concept. He’s not welcome there until he does.
But it’s not quite that simple. Greg Jaffe spent some time there:
For Julia Santucci, there was without question a connection between what she saw as President Trump’s “fearmongering” about an immigrant invasion and the deadliest attack on American Jews in the nation’s history, a few miles from her home.
“You’re fomenting a type of hatred that others take too far,” said Julia, a senior lecturer at the University of Pittsburgh, of the president and his most ardent backers.
Yeah, well, the University of Pittsburgh is adjacent to Squirrel Hill, a mile or two down Forbes Avenue, but there’s her father:
Her father, an insurance broker and lifelong Republican, believed that line of thought made little sense. Trump could often be blunt and crude, but Rocco Santucci did not believe he was racist, anti-Semitic or even anti-immigrant. In his view, Trump was no more to blame for the killings than Democratic politicians who also stoked Americans’ fears.
“Trump’s a shrewd guy,” Rocco said of the president. “He picks what sells.”
If it works it’s excusable, but this is an odd situation:
The divide is evident in more subtle ways. One involved Julia, 38, who on the Monday after the shooting was thinking about her 69-year-old father. He had been the chairman of the Ross Township Republican Committee in the 1980s and had volunteered on behalf of President Ronald Reagan. Through the 1990s and the 2000s, they argued – sometimes heatedly – about politics.
Lately, though, they had found it harder and harder to even discuss Trump. “My dad is a lifelong Republican but not a Trump Republican,” she said, pausing. “I think.” She knew with certainty that her father had voted for Reagan, and both Bushes, and John McCain and Mitt Romney. But in the 2016 election, for the first time in her life, she wasn’t certain who he voted for.
“I didn’t ask,” she said.
Did she really want to know?
“I don’t know,” she said. “It’s hard not to take these things personally. It’s hard not to view a vote for Trump as a rejection of the things I value.”
For Julia and her father, Rocco, the debate over whether Trump should visit Pittsburgh led someplace more personal.
But she too had left Ross Township for the larger world.
She and her father often argued heatedly about politics, particularly after her politics shifted left in college, but they shared a common belief in the importance of a strong national defense. After graduate school at the University of Arizona, Julia joined the CIA as an analyst. She did a stint at the White House from 2012 to 2014, where she focused on Egypt policy.
“In Egypt, you could see how political leaders create a culture that allowed violence to flourish,” she said.
But it was best to keep quiet about that:
As the years passed, her father made a vow not to talk about politics with his daughter on the phone, where they both grew too heated.
“We love each other very much,” he said. “But our differences in politics are many.”
One exception came the day after the election in November 2016. On the phone that day, her father said, a devastated Julia told him that Trump’s election made her feel “unsafe” as a woman.
To her father, her concerns seemed overstated and even foolish. “The country is not going to change because this guy is president,” he recalled telling her.
He didn’t get it, but maybe he did:
Rocco said he believed that Hillary Clinton was “dangerous” and that Trump would be better for the country. But in the privacy of the voting booth, he said, he pulled the lever for Clinton “for Julia’s sake.”
On Monday, after telling a Washington Post reporter who he had voted for, Rocco called his daughter.
“It surprised me, too,” Julia wrote in an email after learning of his father’s decision two years earlier. “Although I am not surprised he prioritized family over politics.”
Those are the highlights. Read the whole thing – these things are complicated – because decency is complicated.
Matt Viser explains that:
President Trump, a self-styled “nationalist” who has warned of an “invasion” of refugees from Central America, is making the fundamental question of American identity the centerpiece of his closing argument in the midterm elections.
Trump’s hardline rhetoric on immigration has been a hallmark of his political brand for years, and Republican candidates have largely followed his lead throughout the 2018 campaign.
But Tuesday, with emotions still raw over the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre and a string of mail bombs sent to Trump critics, the president took his efforts to a new level – vowing to issue an executive order to curtail birthright citizenship.
That was nonsense. The Citizenship Clause in the first sentence of Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States declares that “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside.” There’s no ambiguity. That’s the Constitution. The president doesn’t get to change the Constitution by executive order. Trump was just floating the idea that it would be cool if he could change the Constitution by executive order, any part of it, at will, and he was floating the idea he might just give that a try. Even if he lost that fight he’d win. His base would love that he tried.
But the world is larger than his base:
There were signs Tuesday that some Trump allies were nervous about sparking a deeper cultural debate in the campaign’s final stretch, particularly with some critics alleging that hostile political rhetoric has played a role in encouraging violence.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), typically loath to criticize Trump, swiftly expressed skepticism about the president’s view that he could limit the constitutionally guaranteed citizenship rights of anyone born on U.S. soil. Later, Rep. Steve Stivers (R-Ohio), the head of the House Republicans’ campaign arm, condemned Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), one of the most outspoken immigration critics in Congress, for supporting nationalist politicians, tweeting, “We must stand up against white supremacy and hate.”
Kanye West, a prominent African American musician who embraced Trump in a much-hyped Oval Office meeting this month, tweeted Tuesday: “My eyes are now wide open and now realize I’ve been used to spread messages I don’t believe in. I am distancing myself from politics and completely focusing on being creative!!!”
Kanye West is abandoning his campaign to get all blacks to renounce the Democratic Party and his campaign to repeal the Thirteenth Amendment, the one that abolished slavery here. He had his regrets, but many are having second thoughts:
While Republicans have long criticized Democrats for emphasizing “identity politics” in their courtship of ethnic minorities to win elections, Trump is now taking steps seemingly designed to mobilize his heavily white base. And with the past week’s violence coming after three years of warnings from critics that Trump was stoking racism, his unwillingness to tone down his nationalist appeals is reviving concerns about his closing strategy.
“It’s very risky,” said Alex Conant, a longtime Republican consultant. “Obviously Republicans who show up at his rallies, they love it. But he’s not going to suburbia, because a lot of those policies don’t play well with suburban Republicans. It’s frankly why our House majority is at risk.”
But this is what works:
Trump has tried out other issues, including floating a new tax cut last week, but he rarely strays too far from immigration, the fiery topic that has animated him, and his loyal base, from the time he announced his presidential campaign in 2015.
A week ago he openly embraced the racially loaded word “nationalist” to describe his political philosophy. Even as a shocked nation turned toward a pipe-bomber from Florida and a gunman in Pittsburgh, the president amped up his rhetoric and the bluntness of his proposals to try to regain the spotlight.
First, he sounded alarms about the migrant caravan marching through Mexico, claiming that it was an “invasion” even though it remained nearly 1,000 miles away. Then, he ordered 5,200 U.S. troops to the southern border… He also talked about building tent cities for migrants.
But this is all nonsense:
“You cannot end birthright citizenship with an executive order,” Ryan said during a radio interview with Kentucky-based station WVLK. “We didn’t like it when Obama tried changing immigration laws via executive action, and obviously as conservatives we believe in the Constitution.”
Rep. Ryan Costello (R-Pa.) said Trump was engaging in “political malpractice” and putting suburban Republicans in competitive districts at risk.
And then there’s Steve King:
King, who is running for a ninth term, has a long record of incendiary remarks, saying in 2013 that some Hispanics have “calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.” He has kept a Confederate flag on his desk and has unapologetically embraced white-nationalist rhetoric with little consequence.
The nonpartisan Cook Political Report changed its rating for King’s district Tuesday from “likely Republican” to “lean Republican,” noting that King’s Democratic opponent has outraised him, “in large part thanks to disgusted national donors who view King as a racist.”
Not everyone can be Donald Trump, but on the other hand:
Other Republicans were fully embracing Trump and his political brand of attacking his opponents and using racial undertones.
The National Republican Congressional Committee – even while distancing itself from King – has been running an ad in a Minnesota congressional district showing George Soros, the Jewish philanthropist and Democratic donor who was the target of one of the pipe bombs sent by mail last week, behind stacks of cash. In Connecticut, a Republican state Senate candidate mailed campaign literature that depicts his Democratic opponent, Matthew Lesser, holding a fistful of cash near his mouth. Lesser is Jewish, and the ad has triggered complaints of anti-Semitism.
That’s the sort of thing that worries the folks in Squirrel Hill, which was actually Mister Rogers’ neighborhood, the real one, so this is a bit of a standoff:
In an indication that candidates don’t want to talk about immigration as much as Trump does, the topic was mentioned in only 9 percent of ads in congressional races – less often than campaign finance and corruption.
But in an election in which both parties are trying to motivate their core supporters, immigration is still an issue that drives Republican energy.
“Xenophobia and anti-immigration has been used in elections before,” said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian. “It’s just surprising Trump is doing it in such a Day-Glo fashion. Usually it’s subterranean, it’s more dog whistle and nods and winks.”
“Since the Civil War we’ve never had a president who tries to destroy the melting-pot story,” Brinkley said. “Usually it becomes a point of national pride – ‘we can all blend in here; the Statue of Liberty; everyone is welcome.’ Trump wants to make a distinction: There are real Americans and fake Americans.”
That message was not welcome in Squirrel Hill. They know better, but the New York Times’ Peter Baker simplifies things:
First there was the middle-class tax cut that even his allies and many of his aides had not heard about. Then troops were dispatched to the border to counter an “invasion of our country” by impoverished migrants about 900 miles away.
And then, on Tuesday, President Trump declared that he would sign an executive order essentially rewriting the Constitution as it has been traditionally interpreted to stop children of undocumented immigrants from automatically becoming citizens just because they are born in the United States, claiming power no other president has asserted.
In the last days before a midterm congressional election that will determine the future of his presidency, Mr. Trump seems to be throwing almost anything he can think of against the wall to see what might stick, no matter how untethered from political or legal reality.
Frustrated that other topics – like last week’s spate of mail bombs – came to dominate the news, the president has sought to seize back the national stage in the last stretch of the campaign.
And he has done that. He has driven a new national discussion of whether the president can change any part of the Constitution, or the whole thing, at will, any time he wants. That’s fascinating, and stupid. The answer is no, but he won this one. Everyone is talking about that now. The answer is still no, but the talk goes on, talk about nothing:
Michael Waldman, the president of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law and a former White House speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, said Mr. Trump seemed to be making stuff up as he went without any kind of vetting.
“The executive order is flatly unconstitutional. It’s pretend,” he said. “The tax cut is pretend. Sending troops to the border is expensive theater. Trump is throwing out these ever wilder ideas in the hope to dominate the news. Perhaps there will be method to the madness if he can shape the debate the week before the election. Just as likely, though, the escalating craziness will remind voters of what they don’t like about the president.”
This will remind voters of Squirrel Hill and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. There is such a thing as decency. It’s not hard to find. That’s why Pittsburgh was in the news. There’s escalating craziness everywhere, but not there, not now. That’s not welcome there. Donald Trump can come back when he’s decent.
He’s never coming back.