A Bewildered Nation

After college, everyone has had a few odd jobs, and that’s doubly true for philosophy majors. It was the late sixties, and the philosophy major in question found himself in New York, working as a page on the Tonight Show and other NBC audience shows. He’s still philosophic about that. And then somehow he ended up writing photo captions for the Associated Press. Someone has to do that. And someone has to write the headlines. It’s not the reporters who write the stories. In the days of print there were font size and available space to consider. Big stories got big letters and fewer words. The trick was both to capture the essence of the news item and also hook the reader with something catchy. It’s an art form of sorts. That got the philosophy major in question into the news business and he eventually ended up part of Ted Turner’s team that started up CNN in 1980 – the team that got the nation hooked on continuous instant news. Get to the essence of things. And hook the viewer – the child trapped in a well, the new war starting somewhere, the surprise political scandal, the disaster like no other. That worked. The philosophy major in question had a long career there.

This weekend, of course, demanded a killer headline, literally, and the New York Times came up with Back-to-Back Shooting Massacres Shake a Bewildered Nation to Its Core – the words that screamed from the printed page and the Times’ website, but were softened when a reader clicked on the item. But the nation was bewildered, and shaken to the core, by these two events:

On Sunday, Americans woke up to news of a shooting rampage in an entertainment district in Dayton, Ohio, where a man wearing body armor shot and killed nine people, including his own sister. Hours earlier, a 21-year-old with a rifle entered a Walmart in El Paso and killed 20 people.

In a country that has become nearly numb to men with guns opening fire in schools, at concerts and in churches, the back-to-back bursts of gun violence in less than 24 hours were enough to leave the public stunned and shaken. The shootings ground the 2020 presidential campaign to a halt, reignited a debate on gun control and called into question the increasingly angry words directed at immigrants on the southern border in recent weeks by right-wing pundits and President Trump.

This was the weekend from hell:

Residents of El Paso were on edge, grimly aware of a manifesto posted online that the authorities said was written by the suspect, Patrick Crusius, 21, who was in police custody. The manifesto spoke of a “Hispanic invasion of Texas,” described an imminent attack by the writer and railed against immigrants.

It echoed what Trump had been saying, and then, up north:

In Bellbrook, a quiet suburb of Dayton that residents described as a “utopia,” the typical Sunday morning peace was disrupted by the police and news media who swarmed the cul-de-sacs and sidewalks of the neighborhood where Connor Betts, the 24-year-old suspect, is believed to have lived.

Brad Howard, 25, who had known Mr. Betts since before kindergarten and rode the bus with him to school for years, opened his phone and saw the news of his classmate on Sunday morning. “It was just another one of those things,” he said, “Just a kick in the teeth.”

Brad Howard had moved beyond being bewildered to being philosophical – these things happen, and no one knows why, and no one will ever know why. The universe will kick everyone in the teeth periodically. The best response is to shrug. Accept the events and accept the pain:

Across the country, Americans tried to process the weekend of violence while going about their usual routines. On Sunday morning at the National Cathedral in Washington, the Rev. Dr. Leonard Hamlin Sr. spoke to Americans struggling to grasp the violence and loss of life, on top of what can feel like a long list of national and personal struggles.

“Our real challenge is to look within,” he said. “If you are honest this morning, all of us need to be transformed at little bit more.”

In Cambridge, Mass., people said they had little hope that the events would lead to any policy changes.

“It’s disheartening, I think, to see so many politicians just keep doing the same kind of wash-rinse-repeat kind of cycle of: mass shooting happens, and then it’s, tweet about thoughts and prayers, and then it becomes, ‘We can’t talk about political ideology, we can’t talk about this and that,'” said Greg Cameron, 31, who does marketing for a bike share company.

Laura Platt, 33, a physician, said she wanted to see better gun policies enacted, but had no expectation that that would happen.

Expect nothing. These things happen, and there was this:

Mr. Trump, who spent the weekend at his estate in Bedminster, N.J., thanked law enforcement officials in both cities on Sunday, declaring that “hate has no place in our country and we are going to take care of it.” He said that “a lot of things are in the works.”

Mr. Trump did not elaborate on that statement.

That was a shrug, but the New York Times’ Charles Blow was outraged:

On July 28, a 19-year-old white man named Santino William Legan opened fire at a garlic festival in Gilroy, Calif., killing three people and injuring 13 others before taking his own life.

As the Daily Beast reported, just before the shooting, Legan “posted a picture with a caption that told followers to read a 19th-century, proto-fascist book.” As the site explained:

“The book, which is repeatedly recommended alongside works by Hitler and other fascists on forums like 8chan, is full of anti-Semitic, sexist and white supremacist ideology. The book glorifies ‘Aryan’ men, condemns intermarriage between races, and defends violence based on bogus eugenicist tropes.”

Saturday, a 21-year-old white man identified by the police as Patrick Crusius walked into a crowded Walmart in El Paso and opened fire, killing 20 people and injuring more than two dozen others, some children. It was a massacre.

As The New York Times reported, “Nineteen minutes before the first 911 call” about the shooting at the Walmart, “a hate-filled, anti-immigrant manifesto appeared online.”

The manifesto is heavily anti-immigrant and anti-Hispanic. It’s riddled with the fear of white “displacement” and fear that changing demographics will favor Democrats and turn America into “a one party-state.”

And then on Sunday, a 24-year-old man named Connor Betts opened fire in Dayton, Ohio, killing nine people and injuring at least 27 others. Most of those killed were black.

There was no manifesto there, so that may not fit the pattern, but Blow sees a pattern:

Are these shootings a gun control issue? Of course. We have too many guns, and too many high-capacity guns. We sell guns first designed for soldiers to civilians. We don’t do enough to keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them and we do next to nothing to track guns once they are sold.

But everyone knows that already, and Blow is more concerned with motive:

There is no doubt that Trump and Republicans are making poisonous anti-immigrant rhetoric part of their platforms.

But, I think laying all the blame at their feet is too convenient and simplistic. I think a better way to look at it is to understand that white nationalist terrorists – young and rash – and white nationalist policymakers – older and more methodical – live on parallel planes, both aiming in the same direction, both with the same goal: To maintain and ensure white dominance and white supremacy.

The policymakers believe they can accomplish with legislation in the legal system what the terrorists are trying to underscore with lead. In the minds of the policymakers, border walls, anti-immigrant laws, voter suppression and packing the courts are more prudent and permanent than bodies in the streets. But, try telling that to a young white terrorist who distrusts everyone in Washington…

These terrorists want to do quickly what the policymakers insist must be done slowly, so the terrorists stew in their anger.

And then they shoot, but Maureen Dowd sees something else:

A black man had made it into the White House. A woman in hot pink claimed the gavel in the House. A Latina congresswoman with a Bronx swagger emerged as the biggest media star in the capital. Six Democratic women – five pols and one mystic – earned their spots on the stage in the first presidential debates.

Male candidates who might have jumped to the head of the presidential pack in earlier eras are finding it impossible to rise to anywhere near double digits in polls.

There’s a pattern here too:

White male privilege is out of fashion these days. Yet we are awash in nostalgia for it. Donald Trump has built a political ideology on nostalgia…

Trump’s time machine is a vicious and vertiginous journey, all about punching down, pulpy fictions, making brown and black people scapegoats and casting women back into a crimped era of fewer reproductive rights.

Trump has inverted all the old American ideals, soiling the image of our country in the world and reshaping it around his grievances and inadequacies.

He is a faux tough guy who lets other people do the fighting for him, a needy brat who never accepts responsibility for his actions, an oaf with no trace of courage, class or chivalry.

And she points to the new movie about such things:

Quentin Tarantino has built a movie ideology on nostalgia. In the Los Angeles Times, Mary McNamara observed that the moral of Tarantino’s new fairy tale, “Once Upon A Time in Hollywood,” is, “Who doesn’t miss the good old days when cars had fins and white men were the heroes of everything?”

That’s a dumb question. Even the president knows better:

President Donald Trump on Sunday claimed “mental illness” was the cause of the fatal shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio over the weekend that led to the deaths of 29 people combined.

While Trump floated that “perhaps more has to be done” to prevent future shootings, he claimed that “this is also a mental illness problem if you look at both of these cases.”

“This is mental illness,” he said. “These are really people that are very, very seriously mentally ill.”

So far authorities have found no indication that either of the two suspected shooters was mentally ill. While the motive of Connor Betts, the suspected Dayton shooter who was killed by the police, remains unknown so far, investigators believe the El Paso shooter may have written an anti-immigrant manifesto ranting against the “Hispanic invasion” and are therefore investigating the shooting as a possible hate crime.

This was, then, nonsense, but useful nonsense:

Telling reporters that he’d spoken to Attorney General Bill Barr and FBI Director Chris Wray, Trump said that “hate has no place in our country and we’re going to take care of it.”

Trump critics, including 2020 candidate former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX), say Trump’s own racist rhetoric against immigrants and Hispanics has contributed to the rise in white nationalist violence.

Trump has downplayed white nationalism as “a small group of people that have very, very serious problems,” even though Wray told Congress that a majority of his agency’s arrests of domestic terrorists this year had links to white supremacy.

This president is big on avoidance, but the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Will Bunch dives right in:

The center of Donald Trump’s America is not holding. You had already watched the fear and loathing spiraling out of control – the immigrants afraid to leave their homes to take their kids out to a playground or an ice cream shop, the gulag of squalid concentration camps, the increasingly racist rants from a president desperate to cling to his job. And now these twin eruptions – body bags and hastily abandoned shoes stacked up on blood-stained American asphalt.

When things fall apart, they shatter into a million pieces. I can’t tell you yet exactly how the bloodshed in El Paso is related to a mass murder in Dayton, or to the social dysfunction right here in Philadelphia that caused someone to spray bullets into a crowd of people shooting a hip-hop video, or into a crowded block party in Brooklyn the night before that. I can’t explain why people tweeting about El Paso couldn’t use the hashtag #WalmartShooting because it was already in use for a man who’d just murdered two employees at an outlet in Mississippi.

All I know is that it’s all starting to feel like the same event – a Great Unraveling of America.

Somehow that makes sense:

The feeling only grew worse when I read that the authorities in El Paso believe some of the wounded may not go to local hospitals… because they’re so afraid of our immigration cops. It seemed like one more sign that conditions in this country – the violence, the fear, the embrace of racism and xenophobia from the highest levels, and the long slide into neo-fascism – have become intolerable. And yet – with the blood of El Paso and Dayton not yet dry – far too many are still tolerating this.

None more so than America’s so-called Republican leaders – the Mitch McConnells, Mitt Romneys, the Greg Abbotts – who seemed to share the same pathetic and cowardly playbook of quickly taking to Twitter, praying for the victims and their families, praising the first responders, and quickly logging off without one word about the scourge of white supremacy, their president who helps promote it, or the gun culture that makes it all so lethal.

And forget the mental health crap:

No doubt, mental health – and the lack of care – is a crisis in this country. But linking it to the El Paso murders seems like an evasion. From what we know so far, the killer embraced a sick ideology but knew exactly what he was doing – driving 600 miles to a carefully selected kill zone and writing a hate-filled but consistent manifesto. His mass murder seemed less a statement about his own mental health and more a statement about the moral health of a nation where so many are opening embracing racist and xenophobic rhetoric – including the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Interestingly, the El Paso gunman was media-savvy enough to drop a line into his manifesto that his racist views are independent of his president, that journalists were certain to blame Trump but that would be, in his words, “fake news.” But are good-and-thinking people to make of the fact that Saturday’s killer – just like the Christchurch mass-murderer before him and the Pittsburgh synagogue gunman before him – echoed Trump’s “invasion” language on immigrants? What kind of America should citizens expect when the president attacks women of color in Congress by telling them to go back to where they came from and when his true believers chant, “Send her back!”?

So he sees this:

A president choosing to use the bully pulpit of his office to embrace racism – with the naked political goal of his own re-election – and now inspire mass murderers is the greatest abuse of American power in my lifetime, worse than the crimes of Richard Nixon’s Watergate. This is exactly why the Founders baked impeachment into the Constitution and it’s why the 2020 election may be too long for us to wait. If things are intolerable now – and they are – take a moment to ponder how much worse things can get over the next 15 months if we continue to do nothing.

After all, the president will do nothing. The Associated Press’ Jonathan Lemire covers that:

The president has repeatedly been denounced for being slow to criticize acts of violence carried out by white nationalists, or to deem them acts of domestic terrorism, most notably when he declared there were good people on “both sides” of the 2017 deadly clash in Charlottesville. The number of hate groups has surged to record highs under Trump’s presidency, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“He is encouraging this. He doesn’t just tolerate it; he encourages it. Folks are responding to this. It doesn’t just offend us, it encourages the kind of violence that we’re seeing, including in my home town of El Paso yesterday,” former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, a 2020 Democratic contender, said on CNN’s State of the Union. “He is an open, avowed racist and is encouraging more racism in this country. And this is incredibly dangerous for the United States of America right now.”

Other Democratic candidates also slammed Trump’s lack of response.

“We must come together to reject this dangerous and growing culture of bigotry espoused by Trump and his allies,” tweeted Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. “Instead of wasting money putting children in cages, we must seriously address the scourge of violent bigotry and domestic terrorism.”

And Pete Buttigieg said Trump is “condoning and encouraging white nationalism.”

“It is very clear that this kind of hate is being legitimized from on high,” Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, said in an interview on CNN.

Trump did order flags to be lowered in remembrance of both shootings, and really, that should have satisfied these people:

Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney defended the president’s response, saying Trump was “a combination of saddened by this and he’s angry about it.” Mulvaney told ABC’s “This Week” that Trump’s first call was “to the attorney general to find out what we could do to prevent this type of thing from happening.”

You want him to talk to the public too? Don’t expect much:

White House officials said there were no immediate plans for Trump to address the nation. Trump said Sunday he would be giving a statement on the situation Monday morning.

Other presidents have used the aftermath of a national tragedy to reassure citizens, including when George W. Bush visited a mosque less than a week after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to stand up for Muslims in the United States and when Obama spoke emotionally after mass shootings at the Sandy Hook school in Newtown, Connecticut, and a Charleston, South Carolina, church.

Trump has struggled to convey such empathy and support, and drew widespread criticism when he tossed paper towels like basketballs to hurricane victims in Puerto Rico. He has also, at times, seemed to welcome violence toward immigrants. At a May rally in Panama City Beach, Florida, Trump bemoaned legal protections for migrants and asked rhetorically, “How do you stop these people?”

“Shoot them!” cried one audience member.

Trump chuckled and said, “Only in the Panhandle you can get away with that statement.”

Expect that sort of thing. Daniel Drezner explains why:

The American president serves two functions in our civic life: head of government and head of state. The head of government is the country’s chief executive, making and implementing policy. This is a political job, and usually half the country disagrees with how the president is doing it.

The head-of-state role is simultaneously less and more vital than the head-of-government task. The head of state’s job is often ceremonial, greeting fellow heads of state, attending ceremonial functions such as the D-Day anniversary and the like. This function is not terribly important, although it produced the single-greatest piece of presidential rhetoric in American history. [The Gettysburg address] Then there are national traumas, disasters that seem senseless, in which ordinary citizens look to leaders to help make sense of the world. For my generation, the first prominent example of this was Ronald Reagan’s televised address to the nation following the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle.

Well, those days are over:

Commentators can debate all day about President Trump’s performance as the head of government, but there is a rare degree of unanimity that the 45th president is not just a bad head of state; he is essentially incapable of performing that function. This had been clear long before this weekend. Indeed, a few months ago, the New York Times’s Peter Baker suggested Trump had destroyed this element of the U.S. presidency: “The old-fashioned idea that a president, once reaching office, should at least pretend to be the leader of all the people these days seems so, well, old-fashioned. Mr. Trump does not bother with the pretense. He is speaking to his people, not the people.”

All this was before Trump had launched his persistent, racist tirades against minority members of Congress. Trump’s bigoted rhetoric is about as far from unifying as politically possible. He doesn’t bring the country together – he lacks the ability to do that. The only thing Trump does with his words is inspire domestic extremists and stress the rest of America out.

This holds with particular force for the El Paso shooting. As former Department of Homeland Security official Juliette Kayyem tweeted out, “Trump doesn’t shame white supremacists. He both-sides them, winks and nods them, tolerates, embraces, goads, lures, flirts… call it what you will. But he does not shame it.”

And maybe he just can’t do the job:

The growth of homegrown white nationalism preceded Trump, but his administration has made the problem worse with its rhetoric and staffing decisions. There will and should be debates about the best set of policies to cope with this burgeoning problem. Maybe something will get done; maybe the people acting as impediments to doing something will be voted out.

For now, however, what matters is that America is hurting. Unfortunately, we lack a leader with the ability to serve as a head of state. We have a man who cannot comprehend grieving. All he understands is grievance.

And maybe that’s the headline here – “The President Incapable of Performing the Duties of the Job”

But the New York Times was right. A bewildered nation has been shaken to its core. That’ll do, but now what? That might be the philosophical question.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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