A week of domestic terrorism has many political watchers wondering if the base and xenophobic rhetoric of President Donald Trump led to not only the horrific mass shooting last weekend at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, but also the week-long mail bomb scares across the nation as well as the suspected racially motivated murder of two Black persons outside of as Kroger grocery store in Jeffersontown, Ky.
President Trump on Friday had lauded the FBI’s arrest of mail-bomb suspect Cesar Sayoc Jr,. 56, in promising “swift justice” for the suspect and denouncing as “despicable” the alarming political violence which has rocked his administration for the past 18 months. Two hours earlier, however, the president had tweeted his frustration about the media’s coverage of “this bomb stuff” in noting that the attention was hurting the GOP’s momentum heading into the Nov. 6 midterm elections.
A fixation with ‘migrant caravan’
After the arrest, Trump had turned from his prepared statement at the White House to return to familiar attacks on “fake polls,” “fake media” and the influence of “globalists” on American political culture. That comment prompted chants of “Lock him up!” from supporters gathered there railing against billionaire philanthropist George Soros who was the target of pipe bomb earlier in the week. On Monday, law enforcement officials said Sayoc “had a list of more than 100 people” to whom he intended to send packages. He had sent pipe bombs to a number of destinations, including those to former President Barack Obama and wife, Michelle; former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; former Attorney General Eric Holder, Sen. Kamala Harris (by way of the San Diego Union newspaper), and two package bombs to Rep. Maxine Waters, one headed to her Washington, D.C. office and another intercepted in South Los Angeles.
The week ended in a series of mixed messages—and many attest missed opportunities—for Trump to address the rising cultural antipathy between his conservative coalition and the liberal voting wing. Michael Steele, a Republican strategist and past head of the Republican National Committee, said the president’s penchant for caustic language in rallying his base could be tempered after such a week of murder threats and ultimate loss of life.
“You want and expect presidential leadership in times like these to be strong, emphatic and consistent,” Steele said. “President Trump falls short on consistency. He’ll make a teleprompter speech, say the right thing, and then at 3 a..m. he’ll tweet and revert to viewing these events through a partisan or self-centered lens. That certainly undercuts his sincerity.”
Conspiracy theories and madness
Since his arrest, authorities have discovered more about Caesar Sayoc. Apparently, he lived in an alternative universe of conspiracy theories where monsters stalk people in Florida’s Everglades, a malevolent Jewish billionaire pays American children to stage school shootings, and German politicians are secretly being conceived using Adolf Hitler’s frozen sperm. Sayoc convinced himself that George Soros is behind the migrant caravan of Central American refugees heading toward the U.S. and therefore vented his rage against left-leaning public figures whom he believed are working in consort with the philanthropist.
Conspiracy theories have become more common in American political discourse. Some political scientists believe that Trump won the Republican nomination two years ago in part by bringing “conspiracy-minded” Republicans to the voting booth. And although he has disavowed one of of his trademark conspiracies—the lie that Barack Obama was born in Kenya—he continues to cling to others such as false claims that he saw on television thousands of New Jersey Muslims celebrating the Sept. 11 terrorists attacks, and that millions of undocumented immigrants voted for his opponent Hillary Clinton.
“Whatever he does, there are followers who model their behavior on his,” said Charlie Sykes, a conservative author who has since broken with the GOP over Trump. “In a country of 350 million people, there are going to be more than a few unbalanced individuals who will take him both literally and seriously.”
An early example of Trump’s behavior pattern toward racial and/or ethnic violence was in August 2017 when White supremacists and neo-Nazis marched in Charlottsville, Va. during a rally denouncing statues and other symbols of the Confederacy. Trump vacillated between words of unity and then statements condemning both the racists and the majority peaceful counter-protesters equally.
Blaming the “fake news”
Last week, Trump tweeted his response to the pipe bomb mailings, again echoing his familiar attacks on news outlets: “A very big part of the Anger we see today in our society is caused by the purposely false and inaccurate reporting of the Mainstream Media that I refer to as Fake News. It has gotten so bad and hateful that it is beyond description. Mainstream Media must clean up act, FAST!”
“Everything for him is placed in a political context that he interprets as not requiring the president to kind of play the role of leader of the country,” said Leon Panetta, a former White House chief of staff. “He’s in the middle of an election campaign. He’s been doing all of these rallies. I think in many ways there was a sense that whether or not this threat was real or not, that this was just kind of the political volatility that we’re all part of.”
On Tuesday, Trump visited Pittsburgh to pay respects to the 11 persons killed during Sabbath services at the synagogue in the city’s historically Jewish Squirrel Hill neighborhood, and to visit the four wounded police officers. Trump was met with a reported 1,000 protesters who rejected his combative rhetoric and anti-gun-control stance. Like Sayac, 46-year-old Robert Bowers of Pittsburgh had been monitoring the Central American migrant caravan and believed that Soros and other liberal Jewish organizations were orchestrating the movement.
Bowers had a history of posting anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant statements on social media, including one just moments before his deadly rampage. Bowers’ post specifically mentioned a Jewish-founded nonprofit that helps resettle refugees from around the world and had worked with Dor Hadash, one of the three congregations that meet in the synagogue. Prosecutors on Monday said they will pursue the death penalty in what was the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in U.S. History. Jerry Rabinowitz, a 66-year-old physician and member of Dor Hadash, was killed while helping to set up morning services. Another Dor Hadash member, Dan Leger, was wounded.
‘I just want to kill Jews’
During the attack and subsequent firefight with police, Bowers repeatedly stated his desire to kill Jewish people and made comments about genocide, including: “They’re committing genocide to my [White] people. I just want to kill Jews,” according to the Justice Department’s charging document. Law enforcement officials at press time were still trying to determine how Bowers obtained the AR-15 rifle and three Glock .357 handguns used during the attack.
At a rally Saturday, Trump condemned the shootings as “pure evil” and told reporters afterward that “if there was an armed guard inside the temple, they would have been able to stop him.” Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, who was against Trump’s visit to town on Tuesday, called the attack “one of the worst moments that we have experienced” and immediately pushed back at the president’s comments that an armed guard would have made a difference.
“We’re dealing with irrational behavior; there is no way that you can rationalize a person walking into a synagogue during services and taking the lives of 11 people,” Peduto said. “We shouldn’t be trying to find ways to minimize the dangers that occur from irrational behavior. We should be working to eliminate irrational behavior and the empowerment of people who would seek to cause this type of carnage from continuing.”
‘Whites don’t kill Whites’
Peduto noted that the common denominator behind every mass shooting in America is a gun, adding: “The approach we need to be looking is how we take the guns out of the hand of those that are looking to express hatred through murder.”
During a vigil on Saturday evening, city and religious leaders pledged their support to the Tree of Life congregation, with officials at the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh donating $70,000 for victims’ families and promised to stand guard outside area synagogues if requested. By midweek, the Muslim donation had exceeded well over $100,000.
The Jeffersontown murders were, as well, rooted in hate. Gregory A Bush, a 51-year-old White man is accused of gunning down Maurice Stallard, 69, and Vickie Jones, 67. Prior to the shooting, Bush reportedly tried to enter a nearby Black church but was unable to enter. When that attempt failed, he went to Kroger and opened fire in the store specifically looking for Black patrons. Jeffersontown Mayor Bill Dieruf said investigators are looking into reports that Bush told a bystander before he was captured that “Whites don’t kill Whites.”