Confronting the hate that Trump unleashed

October 29, 2018

The nightmare in Pittsburgh is part of a surge of right-wing violence that is the result of the climate of hate whipped up at the top of the political system, writes Nicole Colson.

THE RESPONSIBILITY for Robert Bowers’ horrifying massacre in the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh doesn’t belong to him alone.

Bowers pulled the trigger, but the list of the guilty also includes right-wing political leaders — with Donald Trump top on the list — whose warped bigotry and twisted conspiracy theories are taken up by petty thugs who identify themselves with names like “Proud Boys” and “Patriot Prayer.”

The slaughter in Pittsburgh wasn’t “unimaginable” or “hard to believe,” as Trump later said — not for anyone paying attention to the climate of hate that he and his administration have whipped up. The headlines in the preceding days were about the pro-Trump pipe bomber who targeted prominent Democrats and liberals and a white supremacist mass shooting in Kentucky.

The fearmongering and violence started long before Trump, too — with roots that ultimately lie in the racism and violence at the core of this country’s founding.

Pittsburghers mobilize in solidarity after the massacre on the Tree of Life synagogue
Pittsburghers mobilize in solidarity after the massacre on the Tree of Life synagogue

Robert Bowers was not only acting on Trump’s provocations, but following the example of white supremacist Dylann Roof, who murdered nine Black members of a Charleston, South Carolina, church in 2015; the three Trump supporters arrested for planning bomb attacks against Somali-Americans in Garden City, Kansas, in 2016; the three far-right militia members who bombed the Dar Al-Farooq Islamic Center in Bloomington, Minnesota, in 2017; white supremacist James Jackson who stabbed Timothy Caughman to death with a sword in New York City in 2017; and neo-Nazi James Alex Fields who murdered anti-racist activist Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017.

And the list goes on and on.

COMING DURING Shabbat services, the attack on the Tree of Life was a terrorist act — designed to send a message of fear and hate and directed at this synagogue specifically because of its work with refugees and immigrants.

Before his attack, Bowers reportedly posted anti-Semitic screeds on a social media platform used by the alt-right and white supremacists — and especially singled out the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) for “bring[ing] invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered.”

Bowers was apparently set off by the HIAS National Refugee Shabbat which, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, is a recent event planned as “a moment for congregations, organizations and individuals around the country to create a Shabbat experience dedicated to refugees.”

As author and Middle East expert Stephen Zunes wrote:

HIAS originally helped Jews escape Nazi-occupied Europe and is currently helping refugees from the Middle East and elsewhere. HIAS has protested the Muslim ban and other Trump anti-immigrant policies, visited refugees in detention, and provided housing for Syrians and others fleeing persecution. It appears, then, that part of what motivated the massacre was this longstanding Jewish tradition of “welcoming the stranger,” assisting those in need and challenging unjust government policies.

Some in the conservative media pointed out that Bowers was critical of Trump in his online rants, declaring that Trump’s “nationalism” was suspect — and that he was really a “globalist” — racist code for “Jewish” or “controlled by Jews.”

But there can be no doubt about Trump’s responsibility for using racism and other forms of bigotry to whip up his base during his two years in the White House and his campaigning before that — which led to a measurable spike in violence against immigrants and other groups.

In fact, only days before Bowers’ rampage, Trump had tagged financier George Soros, a target of the pipe bomber, with the far-right’s “globalist” label — as he accused Soros of funding immigrant “hordes” caravanning through Mexico and paying protesters.

FOLLOWING THE massacre in Pittsburgh, Trump told reporters: “It’s a terrible, terrible thing what’s going on with hate in our country and frankly all over the world, and something has to be done.”

He apparently couldn’t contain himself in adding that if the temple “had some kind of could have been a much different situation.” Leave it to Trump to use the mass killing of elderly Jewish people as an occasion for a National Rifle Association-style call for more guns — and to suggest bringing “the death penalty into vogue.”

As for the “hate in our country,” Trump is very familiar with it — because he’s stoked it at every opportunity.

Since he started his presidential campaign, Trump cheered on physical assaults against those protesting his policies and, in some cases, reporters doing their jobs.

But in recent months, Trump, members of his administration and those in his ideological inner circle seem to have stepped up their game, spewing toxic conspiracy theories and outright bigotry — from the racist fantasy that “unknown Middle Easterners” are hiding in the caravan of migrants traveling from Honduras; to the complaint that George Soros, along with Bill and Hillary Clinton, were behind the allegations of sexual assault against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination; to the rants against prominent media outlets like CNN as “enemies of the people” that peddle lies about Trump to make him look bad.

The endlessly repeated lies and scapegoating are bound to embolden those with hate-fueled ideas — and spur some to take action, whether their beliefs line up exactly with Trump’s or not.

SUCH WAS the case with hard-core Trump supporter Cesar Sayoc, who was arrested last week for sending 14 explosive devices to Soros, the Clintons, other prominent Democrats and media outlets such as CNN.

Sayoc, according to the Miami Herald, was a down-on-his-luck pizza delivery man who “finally found his true calling two years ago at a rally for Donald Trump in West Palm Beach. He bought a red Make America Great Again cap, carried a poster mocking Trump critics and joined the boisterous throng in chants of ‘Lock her up!’”

From there, the Herald reported, he “plastered his van with stickers glorifying Trump and superimposing rifle-scope crosshairs on the faces of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. He began berating his lesbian boss at the pizza parlor, telling her she would burn in hell with the Blacks, Hispanics, Jews, Muslims and gays who were ruining America."

Then, “his social media posts...turned dark and conspiratorial, with pictures of Hillary and Bill Clinton, Barack and Michelle Obama, Nancy Pelosi, Al Sharpton, Eric Holder, Anderson Cooper and Rachel Maddow and references to Benghazi, e-mail servers, media collusion and CNN, below the words ‘Swamp to be drained!’”

It’s only by chance that Sayoc didn’t inflict any damage on those he targeted — or that he didn’t turn his hate on ordinary people closer to home who didn’t have security in place.

Yet even as Sayoc’s mail bombs were still being tracked down, prominent Trump supporters, including Rush Limbaugh, Lou Dobbs and Ann Coulter, suggested that the bombs were fake — a “false flag” operation designed to make Trump and the right look bad before the midterm elections.

Sayoc wasn’t successful in turning his hate into actual harm, but others were.

On October 24, 51-year-old Gregory Bush went on a shooting spree at a Kentucky Kroger grocery store, killing two African Americans.

Bush reportedly approached 69-year-old Maurice Stallard inside the store, shooting him in the back of the head and continuing to fire into his body. He then walked out into the parking lot where he killed 67-year-old Vicki Lee Jones.

Bush allegedly spared the life of a white man in the parking lot, saying, “I won’t shoot you. Whites don’t shoot whites.”

Prior to the grocery store murders, Bush tried to enter a Black church, but the doors were locked. This raises the horrible possibility that the U.S. might have seen two mass shootings at places of worship this week prompted by bigoted hate.

As Jones’ nephew Kevin Gunn said in an interview with the Independent about his aunt’s murder, “It seems like a hate crime. Yesterday, I was sad. Today, I’m angry.”

AS TRUMP and his fellow reactionaries whip up hatred toward immigrants, Muslims, women, LGBTQ people and others, the question isn’t if we will see more violence carried out by right-wingers, but when will it happen next — and what we can do to confront the far right.

When their scapegoating inevitably spills into real-world violence, the right wing immediately disavows those who commit it as mentally ill, with no connection to official politics. But Trump and the reactionaries who are thriving under his presidency count on and cultivate the bigotry and outrage of their political base.

The New York Times described how Sayoc, who was far from well to do like his idol in the White House, “found an identity in political rage and resentment.”

There is an ironic twist to Sayoc’s story: According to the Intercept, he was living in his van because his house was foreclosed on in 2009 — by a bank whose principal owner and chair is now Steven Mnuchin, the Trump administration’s Treasury Secretary, with a net worth estimated at $300 million.

“He had tremendous anger slowly boiling up, and resentment, and felt ‘less than,’” Ronald Lowy, a lawyer for Sayoc’s family, told the Times. “He lacked an identity. He created a persona.”

That is exactly part of the appeal of fascism as a political ideology — whether or not Sayoc, Bowers, Bush or others can be considered to be organized fascists. As the German revolutionary socialist Clara Zetkin once described:

[F]ascism is a movement of the hungry, the suffering, the disappointed, and those without a future...We must understand that, incontestably, growing masses here are seeking an escape route from the dreadful suffering of our time.

This involves much more than filling one’s stomach. No, the best of them are seeking an escape from the deep anguish of the soul. They are longing for new and unshakeable ideals and a world outlook that enables them to understand nature, society, and their own life; a world outlook that is not a sterile formula but operates creatively and constructively.

In a world in which people are routinely told that “there is no alternative” to the poverty, hardships and alienation they experience, right-wing hate promoted by organized reactionaries — exploited and enabled by more mainstream political figures — offers an answer, or at least a target to direct their rage at: I’m suffering because of them.

This is why it’s more important than ever to stand united against the racist hate that Trump and others have helped unleash.

IN SEPTEMBER 1963, Martin Luther King gave the eulogy for three of the four Black girls killed by a white supremacist bombing in Birmingham, Alabama.

King talked about how their deaths could become a turning point in which ordinary people would be compelled to stand against racist violence and in defense of civil rights — and how the powers that be, who urged “patience” in the face of such hate, could be made to act:

[I]n a real sense they have something to say to each of us in their death. They have something to say to every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows. They have something to say to every politician who has fed his constituents with the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism. They have something to say to a federal government that has compromised with the undemocratic practices of southern Dixiecrats and the blatant hypocrisy of right-wing northern Republicans. They have something to say to every Negro who has passively accepted the evil system of segregation and who has stood on the sidelines in a mighty struggle for justice.

They say to each of us, Black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution. They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers. Their death says to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly for the realization of the American dream.

Trump and Co. aren’t about to stop their racist provocations that lead to violence. But the desire to confront hate and bigotry, whatever its source, will also not be silenced.

On the evening of the Pittsburgh killings, some 2,000 people turned out for a community vigil called by a Jewish student group. Community members also are organizing for interfaith and other solidarity events in the coming days. The Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, for example, condemned the attack, declaring that it "will respond to evil with good. The Muslim community is raising funds for the victims and their families, including funeral expenses and medical bills."

The victims in all of these latest attacks must be honored. But our response is just beginning — as we move from collective shock and grief to political action, based on the bedrock principle that an injury to one is an injury to all.

The left must take the lead in rallying those who want to show their opposition to hate and violence by declaring that we will organize — in unity among all of our oppressed brothers and sisters — and build mass movements against the far right.

We can start by making sure the blame gets put where it belongs: on the political leaders and media figures who have enabled this climate — who have fed people with the “stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism,” with anti-immigrant hate and Islamophobia, with misogyny and anti-LGBTQ bigotry.

As King taught us, it’s time to substitute courage for caution.

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