This week’s news that an unidentified bomber has mailed explosive devices to a number of leading Democrats, including former President Barack Obama, roused glib sympathy and a rare dose of civility in Donald Trump. In a campaign speech reported by the Guardian, he said:
“Any acts or threats of political violence are an attack on our democracy itself,” he told the crowd. “We want all sides to come together in peace and harmony… Those engaged in the political arena must stop treating political opponents as morally defective.”
But he soon reverted to a familiar scapegoat. The media, he said, has “a responsibility to set a civil tone and to stop the endless hostility and constant negative and oftentimes false attacks and stories”.
…He…spoke more generally, including [using] language which could be taken to refer to protests against himself and allies. “No one should carelessly compare political opponents to historical villains, which is done often, it’s done all the time, [it’s] got to stop. We should not mob people in public places or destroy public property. There is one way to settle our disagreements … peacefully, at the ballot box.”
There’s a terrible irony in this statement, as it was Trump himself who, during the 2016 presidential campaign, stoked fears that the election would be “stolen” from him. He also evoked the specter of his followers refusing to accept defeat and engaging in violent resistance. If anyone has refused to settle disagreements at the ballot box it’s Trump himself (unless he’s the winner!).
Press secretary, Sarah Sanders, in her own statement attacked the media, specifically CNN (which received one of the bombs), for causing much of the political division in the nation:
.@realDonaldTrump asked Americans “to come together and send one very clear, strong, unmistakable message that acts or threats of political violence of any kind have no place in the USA” Yet you chose to attack and divide. America should unite against all political violence. https://t.co/Dlo3xwHyKi
— Sarah Sanders (@PressSec) October 25, 2018
There is breathtaking hypocrisy in Sanders claim that Americans should unite against political violence. When white nationalists attacked counter-protesters in Charlottesville last year and a woman was murdered, Trump initially said nothing at all. Later he equivocated, blaming both sides for the violence.
Two days before the pipe bombs began appearing in Democratic leaders’ mailboxes, Trump boasted that he was a “nationalist.” He knew of course that this was a dog whistle, because he followed that by telling the crowd: “I’m not supposed to say that.” In fact, there may never have been a president of the U.S. who has ever boasted publicly that he was a nationalist. There were, of course, many racist presidents. But until Trump, they knew enough to conceal their rabid views under a veneer of civility.
That veneer has been ripped off, hence the beating heart of America’s neo-Nazi movement has emerged from the dark recesses; feeling emboldened to engage in violence they would not have dared previously. The president has given them license. He has egged them on. The bombing campaign is the result.
Earlier this week, he spoke at a rally in Montana and praised a Republican Congress member who assaulted a Guardian reporter who tried to ask him a question about his campaign. The candidate, who received a slap on the wrist as punishment, went on to win his election; later earning the blessing of Trump himself. In bestowing his blessing, Trump once again endorsed the use of violence against his media enemies.
The notion that a president who has done more than any previous American leader to sow hate and division now calls for his fellow citizens to unite against violence would be funny if it wasn’t so darkly ironic. Interestingly, Trump asks for such unity only after his own words have incited the attacks. He reminds me of the joke about the boy who kills his parents and begs the judge for mercy as an orphan.
Trump sowed the seeds of this disaster. Now he will reap the whirlwind. Here is a montage of Trump calling for violence against others.
He has been touring the country pounding the pavement for Republican Congressional candidates. His major scare tactic has been painting lurid pictures of the caravan of Central Americans traveling through Mexico on their way to the U.S. border. He’s evoked numerous racist tropes claiming dark people and Arab terrorists (“unknown Middle Easterners”) have infiltrated the group. His sulfurous words hearkened back to the type of incitement once heard at Nuremberg, or on a Jerusalem balcony just before Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination.
What the Houses of Saud and Trump Share
Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner have staked American foreign policy on a dubious alliance with Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. Trump’s very first foreign trip as president was to the Saudi kingdom, where he celebrated his burgeoning friendship with King Salman and Egyptian strongman, Abdel Fattah Abu-Sisi.
Trump assigned young Jared to cultivate a special relationship with the 32-year-old crown prince. Reports from the White House indicate that MBS’ strongest ally amidst the current crisis over the apparent murder of journalist-dissident, Jamal Khashoggi, has been Kushner. Though lately the latter has been shunted aside as the president’s statements over the killing become more aggressive.
Though Trump and MBS each govern very different countries, there is much that they share in style and substance. They are both born autocrats who brook no opposition. When someone does disagree, they are either vilified (in Trump’s case) and threatened with prison; or arrested, tortured, and even assassinated (in MBS’s case). Just as the Saudi prince is part of a family dynasty which bestows legitimacy and power upon him, Trump sees himself as part of a family real estate empire founded by his grandfather, who operated saloons and brothels in Seattle and western Canada before crossing the country and settling in New York; and his father, who earned a fortune building middle-class housing for GIs returning from World War II. Blacks were, however, turned away from Fred Trump’s properties.
Trump often expresses wishes that his presidency could have some of the trappings of monarchies. He sees himself as above the law. He’s offended by the notion that he is term-limited to serving eight years as president. He’s regularly torn down Congressionally-mandated divisions between the executive branch and independent agencies like the Justice Department, FBI and Federal Reserve in order to pursue his own interests. He’s also ignored both long-time convention and the Constitution by refusing to place his assets in a blind trust, refusing to release his tax returns, and promoting his own economic interests as a sitting president.
Perhaps the best way to see their kinship is in the case of the Khashoggi murder which, according to Turkey’s President Erdogan, was planned meticulously in advance (though not carried out terribly meticulously). Once Turkish authorities uncovered the facts of the killing and who was responsible, they released the sordid details like Chinese water torture. Each drip pierced the veil of Saudi lies a bit deeper.
The Saudi response was initially outright denial: Khashoggi was alive and had exited the consulate, though they had no idea where he was. In the past few days, the Saudis have conceded that the 15-man hit squad did indeed murder the journalist, but did so “accidentally.” Recently, MBS told the audience at the Davos in the Desert investment conference he’s organized that the Khashoggi killing was a “heinous crime.” But that he bore no responsibility for it. The latest development finds the Saudis acquiescing to Erdogan’s claim that the murder was “premeditated.” This may indicate that there is a rapprochement in the offing between the Turks and Saudis.
The Saudis compounded the surrealism by compelling Khashoggi’s oldest son, who remains forbidden from leaving the country, to be received by MBS at the royal palace. The son’s stoic, wooden face tells all as he is forced to accept the outstretched hand of his father’s murderer with palace video teams filming it from multiple angles for posterity. As if that wasn’t enough, MBS issued a directive that Saad Hariri, prime minister of Lebanon, whom he had detained and tortured for days in an earlier episode of brutality which backfired, make an appearance with him at this week’s investment conference. The Crown Prince even attempted to make a lame joke out of it.
This dysfunctional Saudi response to international media coverage and to foreign leaders demanding transparency, echo the endless excuses, delays, and lies besetting the Trump administration; when it pursues policies which come back to haunt it, like barring visitors from Muslim countries or separating immigrant children from their parents.
Finally, the presidency of Donald Trump like the rule of the House of Saud is built on massive corruption, vanity, impulsivity, thuggery, sponsoring terrorism abroad, and sowing fear of foreigners and other outsiders. In Trump’s case, it is immigrants; in MBS’ case it is Shiite Iran and its Houthi allies in Yemen, where he has waged a war that has starved 15-million and killed 15,000. The problem for both men is that once they have committed to a disastrous policy, their ego and vanity is so invested that they cannot back down and admit a mistake, which only compounds the tragedy.