Unlike most of his staged presidential moments, Donald J. Trump’s arrival in Pittsburgh earlier this week was a somber affair. The tenor was not solely due to the nature of his visit, which was ostensibly to pay his respects to 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, Trump’s arrival was decidedly low key. He was effectively alone on the tarmac, surrounded by family members and aides. And not by choice.
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and other government officials specifically asked the president not to come. They exhibited true leadership, putting the needs of their constituents ahead of participating in a presidential photo opportunity. Trump had asked members of the congressional leadership of both parties to join him. They declined. Relatives of at least one of the victims chose not to accept an invitation to meet with him.
The senseless murders committed in Pittsburgh and the attempted assassinations of more than a dozen other “enemies of the state” (including former presidents, government officials, members of the media, and others who don’t share the Trumpian vision of America) over the last few weeks, as well as the increase in white nationalism, racism, anti-Semitism, and nativism, all underscore a brutal reality.
Our collective sense of shame is on life-support and barely breathing. We are daily bearing witness to its slow, painful death and Trump, through his actions, words, and deeds, is partially responsible for its untimely demise.
The president spent thirteen minutes visiting the Tree of Life Synagogue, followed by a visit to a hospital where some of the wounded first responders and victims remained. Then, it was off to the airport for the flight back to Washington, where preparations were already underway for campaign rallies throughout the country. Normally verbose, Trump boarded Air Force One stony-faced and silent; whether a result of the solemnity his visit required or disappointment over his underwhelming reception is unclear.
One day after his visit - with many of the dead yet to be buried - the president 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.
From calls for the arrest and incarceration of political opponents, attacks upon the free press, blatant support for extremist groups, flouting of ethics and societal norms, disregard for the Constitution and the rule of law, violations of human rights and so much more, Trump is using words as weapons. The American ideal of democracy is under fire and may be his ultimate victim.
When an emboldened serial bomber composes a hit list of individuals the president has targeted, 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,” Trump needs to reassess the impact his words have.
Rather than unite us as a country, the president is growing increasingly emboldened and divisive. He is tapping into the worst in us rather than lifting us up as a nation united. It’s time he casts the politics of personality aside. If he is capable of doing so.
Donald J. Trump is an intelligent man; far from book smart, more street smart. He may be ignorant of the nuances of governance, the Constitution, and the role of the president. He may not understand the concept of moral leadership or basic human decency. But make no mistake. He is cunning and has his finger on the pulse of an unwavering third of the electorate. He is tapped into a culture of hate that has been percolating beneath the surface of our country for quite some time. And he readily, repeatedly and shamelessly exploits those who share his sentiments to advance his own agenda.
There is still time to resuscitate our fundamental sense of shame. We can only hope the president attempts to revive his own.
Blair Bess is an award-winning journalist and columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.