Unlike the majority of staged presidential moments which have become all-too-familiar during his reign, Donald J. Trump’s arrival in Pittsburgh this past Tuesday was a somber affair. The tenor was not solely due to the nature of his visit to the Steel City, which was ostensibly to pay his respects for the eleven Jewish worshippers massacred at the Tree of Life Synagogue over the previous weekend. It was the mere fact that he had traveled to Pittsburgh at all.
Rather than being greeted at the airport by civic leaders as is customary when the President of the United States comes to town, Mr. Trump’s arrival was decidedly low key. He was effectively alone on the tarmac, surrounded by family members and aides. And not by choice. The president came to town, ignoring the requests of city officials and community leaders not to do so. They made clear that their priority was to the families, mourners and members of the neighborhood of Squirrel Hill who were directly affected by the devastating assault.
Pittsburgh Mayor William Peduto and other government officials were acting in the interests of their citizens, exhibiting true leadership, putting the needs of their constituents ahead of taking part in one more presidential photo opportunity. Mr. Trump asked members of the congressional leadership of both parties – including stalwarts like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker Paul Ryan – to join him. They declined. Relatives of at least one of the victims chose not to meet with him.
The president spent thirteen minutes visiting the synagogue, as well as a hospital where some of the wounded first responders and victims remained. Then, it was off to the airport, tail between his legs, for the flight back to Washington where preparations were already underway for campaign rallies throughout the country. Normally verbose, Mr. Trump boarded Air Force One stony-faced and silent. How could he not? He’s used to adoring fans and cries of “Lock her up” – whether the “her” in question is Hillary Clinton, Christine Blasey Ford, or Maxine Waters.
Mr. Trump is not used to protesters, like those he encountered in Pittsburgh. He shields himself from them. He’s not used to people – 50,000 of them – signing online petitions expressly telling him that he is not welcome in their city. No matter. He came, he saw, he left with nary a word spoken. One day later – with many of the dead yet to be buried – Trump was back on the campaign trail, his spirits invariably lifted as orchestrated throngs cheered him upon his arrival in other cities and towns throughout this divided nation.
The senseless murders committed in Pittsburgh and the attempted assassinations of a dozen other “enemies of the state” (including former presidents, government officials, members of the media, and others who don’t share the misguided Trumpian vision of America) over the last few weeks, as well as the increase in white nationalism, racism, anti-Semitism, nativism, all underscore a brutal reality. We are daily bearing witness to the slow, painful death of shame. It is on life-support and barely breathing.
From calls for the arrest and incarceration of political opponents, attacks upon the free press, his blatant support for extremist groups, his flouting of ethics and societal norms, his disregard for the Constitution and the rule of law, his violation of human rights and so much more, Mr. Trump is using words as weapons. It is the American ideal of democracy that will be his ultimate victim.
When an emboldened serial bomber composes a hit list comprised of individuals the president has targeted, Mr. Trump bears a measure of responsibility. When his description of oppressed people as “invaders” finds its way into the social media screeds of racists and is used as motivation for the taking of innocent lives, he shares some degree of blame. When a Southwest Airlines passenger gropes a woman aboard a flight and tells federal agents he did so because “the President of the United States said it’s okay to grab women by their private parts,” Mr. Trump needs to reassess the impact his words.
Despite his cagey denials, the president knows that “globalist” has long been a buzz word for Jews and that the term “nationalist,” whether it includes “white” as a modifier, describes racists and anti-Semites. No matter. It plays well with the proverbial base. Unfortunately, the base only accounts for a portion of the people he was elected to serve.
Rather than unite us as a country, the president is growing increasingly emboldened and divisive. He is tapping into the very worst of who we are rather than lifting us up as one people. It’s time politics is cast aside.
Donald J. Trump is an intelligent man; far from book smart, more street smart. He may be ignorant of the nuances of leadership, the Constitution, and the role of the president. He may not understand the concept of moral leadership. But make no mistake. He is cunning and has his finger on the pulse of a stable third of the electorate. He has tapped into a culture of hate that has been percolating under the surface of our country for quite some time. And he readily, repeatedly and shamelessly exploits those who share his sentiments to his advantage.
There is still time to resuscitate shame. We can only hope the president will do so before it flatlines.