Connor Betts, the alleged Dayton, Ohio, shooter, believed in socialism, supported Elizabeth Warren’s candidacy, and regularly inveighed on Twitter against various personages on the right (including, it turns out, me).
This has some conservatives fuming that liberal media is conveniently ignoring the progressive ideology of one shooter while obsessing over the far-right ideology of another – Patrick Crusius, who posted an anti-immigrant manifesto shortly before police say he murdered 22 people at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas.
Sorry, but the comparison doesn’t wash. It’s idiotic.
The Dayton victims did not fit any political or ethnic profile: They were black and white, male and female, an immigrant from Eritrea and Betts’ own sister. Crusius’ victims, overwhelmingly Hispanic, did: They were the objects of his expressly stated political rage.
What happened in Ohio was a mass shooting in the mold of the Las Vegas massacre: victims at random, motives unknown. What happened in Texas was racist terrorism in the mold of Oslo, Charleston, Pittsburgh, Christchurch and Poway.
The former attack vaguely implicates the “dark psychic force” that Marianne Williamson spoke of in the last Democratic debates. The latter directly implicates the immigrant-bashing xenophobic right led by Donald Trump.
This needs to be said not because it isn’t obvious but because too many conservatives have tried to deny the obvious. It’s not about ideology, they say: It’s a mental health issue. But that’s precisely the kind of evasive reasoning many of those conservatives mocked in 2016, when the mental state and sexual orientation of Orlando nightclub shooter Omar Mateen was raised by some media voices to suggest that his attack had not really been an act of Islamist terrorism.
Alternatively, conservatives have cited the decline of civil society, the effects of the deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill, the paucity of prayer and the ubiquity of violent video games – in sum, the breakdown of “the culture” – as explanations for mass shootings. This is the right-wing equivalent of the left’s idea that poverty and climate change are at the root of terrorism: causes so general that they explain everything, hence nothing.
Get real: The right’s attempt to downplay the specifically ideological context of the El Paso massacre is a transparently self-serving attempt to absolve the president of moral responsibility for his demagogic rhetoric. This, too, shouldn’t wash. The president is guilty, in a broad sense, of a form of incitement.
No, Trump did not specifically incite anyone to violence, as characters like Yasser Arafat once did. He will not, as Palestinian leaders still do, offer financial rewards to the families of terrorists. His scripted condemnation of white supremacy was, at least, a condemnation.
But incitement takes many forms. In June 2018, Trump tweeted: “Democrats are the problem. They don’t care about crime and want illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be, to pour into and infest our Country, like MS-13. They can’t win on their terrible policies, so they view them as potential voters!”
The tweet is significant precisely because it is almost forgotten. It does not even rank in a top 10 list of Trumpian outrages. And yet it’s all there: The imputation of bad faith to his political opponents. The conspiracy theory about “potential voters.” The sneaking conflation of immigrants in the country illegally with violent gang members.
And the language of infestation. In the early 1990s, Hutu propagandists in Rwanda spoke of the Tutsi as “cockroaches.” The word served as a preamble to the 1994 genocide in which over half a million people died. In today’s America, the dissemination of the idea, via the bully pulpit of the presidency, that we are not merely being strained or challenged by immigrants in the country illegally, but invaded and infested, predicated the slaughter in El Paso.
It’s worth noting that the Walmart massacre is, as far as I know, the first large-scale anti-Hispanic terrorist attack in the United States in living memory. On current trend, it will surely not be the last or the worst. The language of infestation inevitably suggests the “solution” of extermination. As for the cliché that sensible people are supposed to take Trump seriously but not literally, it looks like Patrick Crusius didn’t get that memo.
The main task for Democrats over the next 15 months won’t be to convince America that they need yet another health care reinvention, or that the economy is a mess, or that the system is rigged, or that the right response to Trump’s immigration demagoguery is an open border. It’s that the president is a disgrace to his office, an insult to our dignity, a threat to our Union and a danger to our safety.
Bret Stephens is a columnist for The New York Times.