Nobody made a super-big deal about it on March 15, 2019, when the president of the United States — in his fancy baggy suit, over-long tie hanging down behind the Resolute Desk, veto pen in hand — sat in the Oval Office and described the surge of desperate asylum seekers on America’s southern border as “an invasion.”
“People hate the word invasion, but that’s what it is,” Donald Trump told the White House press pool, as he vetoed the legislation from Congress aimed at blocking the president from his authoritarian maneuvers to divert at least $2.5 billion for a border wall — to keep these human beings out. Maybe no one made a big deal because we’d grown so numb to hate-inducements from inside our own White House. He’d already called the immigrant influx “an invasion” on more than a half-dozen occasions — tweeting just days earlier: “I am stopping an invasion as the Wall gets built. #MAGA.”
A month before that, Trump had chosen the border city of El Paso, Texas, as the place to dramatize the alleged threat from Latino migrants. He rented out a big arena (stiffing the owners, by the way) and rallied support for the xenophobic centerpiece of his re-election campaign, making sure to highlight any criminals among the thousands of migrants who’ve been arrested and detained. “Murders, murders, killing, murder,” the president rambled at one point, as his frenzied crowd chanted “Build that wall!” Trump went on: “We will. If we cut detention space, we are letting loose dangerous criminals into our country.”
Five and a half months after that rally, a white 21-year-old community-college student with a pro-Trump social media feed sat down in his family’s McMansion in a posh Dallas suburb and picked out El Paso — more than 600 miles away — on a map. When he got to the border city, the man-child posted a so-called manifesto on the hate-laden website called 8chan that stated: “This is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.” Hours later, in police custody, the gunman reportedly told investigators he entered a Walmart packed with back-to-school shoppers to kill as many Mexicans as possible.
Indeed, the 21-year-old did kill three Mexican nationals during the shooting spree that begin at 10 a.m. on a sun-soaked Saturday in El Paso. Most of those he mowed down with his AK-47-style long gun were the ones least able to escape a killer’s only-in-America rapid gunfire. The 20 corpses — some face down in a parking lot — included an 82-year-old woman and a 2-year-old. A 25-year-old woman was shot and killed while shielding her own 2-month-old baby (who lived), while witnesses described another infant with blood smeared across his belly. As always, the details of America’s 249th mass shooting of 2019 were both shocking and painfully familiar at the same time.
But this weekend came a grim plot twist.
If you’re like me and have the weird habit of falling asleep in front of the TV, you may have awakened, as I did at 5 a.m., to the gut-wrenching sight of police sirens flashing in the dead of a Dayton night. In America, the nightmares come when you wake up. It was the aftershock, the second spasm of deadly American violence in just 13 hours, and the 250th of the year.
Nine dead in Ohio. We don’t know why a man opened fire on the crowd outside the Ned Peppers nightclub, but we do know that just like in El Paso, he was a young white man dressed in black, with enough firepower to kill or main a few dozen humans in less than a minute’s time.
It was at that moment, in the predawn blackness of a hot August night, that you could see that the center of Donald Trump’s America is not holding. You had already watched the fear and loathing spiraling out of control — the immigrants afraid to leave their homes to take their kids out to a playground or an ice cream shop, the gulag of squalid concentration camps, the increasingly racist rants from a president desperate to cling to his job. And now these twin eruptions — body bags and hastily abandoned shoes stacked up on blood-stained American asphalt.
When things fall apart, they shatter into a million pieces. I can’t tell you yet exactly how the bloodshed in El Paso is related to a mass murder in Dayton, or to the social dysfunction right here in Philadelphia that caused someone to spray bullets into a crowd of people shooting a hip-hop video, or into a crowded block party in Brooklyn the night before that. I can’t explain why people tweeting about El Paso couldn’t use the hashtag #WalmartShooting because it was already in use for a man who’d just murdered two employees at an outlet in Mississippi.
All I know is that it’s all starting to feel like the same event — a Great Unraveling of America. The feeling only grew worse when I read that the authorities in El Paso believe some of the wounded may not go to local hospitals ... because they’re so afraid of our immigration cops. It seemed like one more sign that conditions in this country — the violence, the fear, the embrace of racism and xenophobia from the highest levels, and the long slide into neo-fascism — have become intolerable. And yet — with the blood of El Paso and Dayton not yet dry — far too many are still tolerating this.
None more so than America’s so-called Republican leaders — the Mitch McConnells, Mitt Romneys, the Greg Abbotts — who seemed to share the same pathetic and cowardly playbook of quickly taking to Twitter, praying for the victims and their families, praising the first responders, and quickly logging off without one word about the scourge of white supremacy, their president who helps promote it, or the gun culture that makes it all so lethal.
The few GOP bigwigs who were pressed for more fell back on familiar tropes. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy reached all the way to back to the 1990s to blame violent video games, while Abbott, the governor of Texas who once famously lamented the fact that Texans weren’t buying as many guns as Californians, said “the bottom line is that mental health is a large contributor.”
No doubt, mental health — and the lack of care — is a crisis in this country. But linking it to the El Paso murders seems like an evasion. From what we know so far, the killer embraced a sick ideology but knew exactly what he was doing — driving 600 miles to a carefully selected kill zone and writing a hate-filled but consistent manifesto. His mass murder seemed less a statement about his own mental health and more a statement about the moral health of a nation where so many are opening embracing racist and xenophobic rhetoric. Including the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Interestingly, the El Paso gunman was media-savvy enough to drop a line into his manifesto that his racist views are independent of his president, that journalists were certain to blame Trump but that would be, in his words, “fake news.” But are good-and-thinking people to make of the fact that Saturday’s killer — just like the Christchurch mass-murderer before him and the Pittsburgh synagogue gunman before him — echoed Trump’s “invasion” language on immigrants? What kind of America should citizens expect when the president attacks women of color in Congress by telling them to go back to where they came from and when his true believers chant, “Send her back!”?
Researchers went back and looked at the counties where Trump held his 2016 campaign rallies and found those jurisdictions posted a stunning 226 percent rise in hate crimes. That paper didn’t include El Paso, which was targeted in 2019 by both the Trump campaign and a mass killer. Or Southern Ohio, where the president held a rally on Thursday. Just last week, an FBI memo said fringe conspiracy theories are becoming a domestic terrorism threat — a warning that came to life with a series of pops on Saturday morning. Now, what are we going to do about it?
“He [Trump] is a racist, and he stokes racism in this country,” said El Paso’s Beto O’Rourke, the former congressman and current 2020 presidential candidate. “It fundamentally changes the character of this country, and it leads to violence.” O’Rourke’s words were a moment of moral clarity that America so desperately needs right now. We just need a lot more.
Our intolerable state of affairs screams out for a crisis footing. We need Mitch McConnell to stop tweeting platitudinous baloney and call the Senate back from its summer recess and act on legislation that prevents gunmen from hunting human beings with weapons of warfare — a ban on military-style weapons that can kill or maim a person every second and the high-capacity magazines that feed them. If McConnell and the GOP leadership won’t hold that vote — and they won’t — then Democrats need to shut down Capitol Hill until it happens. There cannot be business as usual.
Last night, a meeting of the remarkable activists from Moms Demand Action —- the preeminent anti-gun-violence group right now — was taking place in Washington, D.C., and as news poured in from El Paso, they swarmed the White House for a candlelight (and iPhone-light) protest at White House that was powerful and profound. We should join them. All of us. People in Puerto Rico, Hong Kong, and elsewhere have taken greater risks to protest behavior that — while undeniable outrageous — arguably is nowhere near as bad as what the 45th president is perpetrating.
But the real moment of clarity as the sun rises over El Paso and Dayton is that President Trump urgently needs to resign or be impeached. Already, 120 House members have signed onto impeachment. But while the frequently cited Mueller report does lay out serious high crimes and misdemeanors, the real reason for impeachment should be Trump’s incitements to violence — which experts call stochastic terrorism — and his appeals to racism.
A president choosing to use the bully pulpit of his office to embrace racism — with the naked political goal of his own re-election — and now inspire mass murderers is the greatest abuse of American power in my lifetime, worse than the crimes of Richard Nixon’s Watergate. This is exactly why the Founders baked impeachment into the Constitution, and it’s why the 2020 election may be too long for us to wait. If things are intolerable now — and they are — take a moment to ponder how much worse things can get over the next 15 months if we continue to do nothing.