The great writer Masha Gessen commented the other day that “[t]here is an adage of journalism that holds that every story should be written as if by a foreign correspondent.” It turns out that a New York Times reporter was taking that very advice, traveling the 128 miles from Manhattan to a strange land of exotic creatures called Old Forge, Pa., just outside of Scranton.
The natives of Old Forge were getting restless about, of all things, a special election for the Pennsylvania legislature. The Republican candidate was a citizen of that former-coal-and-former-textiles town (self-proclaimed “Pizza Capital of the World”) of 8.313 souls -- a man named Frank Scavo III, who’d generated some controversy with Facebook posts about the completely invented scandal known as (irony alert) “Pizzagate” and, more alarmingly, that Muslims are “infidels.”
The good news is that Scavo lost the election and won’t be spewing his hate in Harrisburg as an elected official. But the Times reporter, Astead W. Herndon, still thought there was a story to be told in the deepening paranoia and resentments of Scavo’s die-hard supporters in this struggling town that not only voted for President Trump in 2016 but seems all-in with what’s sometimes called “Trumpism” -- but could just as easily be called Neo-fascism -- looking ahead to the 2020 election.
Scavo-Trump supporters echoed the new McCarthyism around their fears of “socialism,” but much of the concern seemed to center on immigration and race. Thomas Bremer, a 67-year-old notary public and Vietnam vet from Olyphant, Pa., told the Times “we’re being swallowed by people coming in.” The candidate’s dad, Frank Scavo Jr., made much of the oft-cited statistic that nonwhites will be a majority in America by mid-century and said he was worried the nation will lose its roots in “Western civilization.”
There was a lot more to what the Times’ Herndon generously called “white identity politics” in and around Old Forge -- including the 71-year-old woman terrified that “they” would eventually reach northeastern Pennsylvania from the southern border and when pressed said in a whisper that “they have names like Vasquez and Hernandez.”
The Times had no idea, of course, that at almost the exact moment its Old Forge article dropped, literally halfway around the world, a 28-year-old Australian man who was much farther along on what one might call the “white identity” spectrum was armed with a semi-automatic weapon and a GoPro camera and starting to commit one of the most heinous acts of the 21st century. In normally peaceful Christchurch, New Zealand, he gunned down 50 Muslims, as young as a 3-year-old, as they prayed in their mosques -- broadcasting the carnage live on Facebook to draw attention to a lengthy manifesto of racist, white-supremacist hate.
As much as we want to not mention the killer’s name nor give any oxygen to his half-baked racist conspiracy theories and internet-friendly memes, there are many aspects about what happened in New Zealand on Friday that are way too important for the world to ignore. No discussion should come without first mentioning the humanity of 50 people that we lost -- something that the murderer and those who fail to condemn him are not capable of. You should take a moment to learn their stories, and the aspirations that were snuffed out. They will always remain in our hearts.
Beyond that, I’ve never seen an incident that managed to combine so many of our modern anxieties -- especially about the role that the internet and popular social media outlets like Facebook, YouTube, Reddit, and niche sites like 8Chan increasingly play in spreading both bogus information and ideologies of hate, but also about race and religion, the ubiquity of guns, and a political climate that in too many nations is working to foment intolerance instead of eliminating it.
One of those nations, unfortunately, is the United States.
It’s ironic that -- in a time when the American political debate centers on Trump’s made-up emergency about a border wall -- there ain’t no mountain high enough to keep the most vile, racist propaganda from spreading from Europe to the United States to Australia and echo back again in a matter of nanoseconds, and to keep that bile from inspiring the kind of deadly violence you’d never see from Central American immigrants.
After the banality of the wanton violence and the killer’s live broadcast, the second most shocking thing about the New Zealand massacre was how well versed the perpetrator was in right-wing tropes that aren’t just common on the American internet but find their way to “mainstream” venues like the Fox News Channel or the halls of Congress.
The Australian gunman said he wanted to spark more debate about our Second Amendment, invoked (perhaps sarcastically) the right-wing media celebrity Candace Owens, and spewed a range of warped theories about the threats to Western civilization from “invaders” that -- while horrible -- were only a degree or two more extreme than what we’ve heard from an Iowa congressman, Steve King, or from the good citizens of Old Forge, Pa. Or from certain quarters at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Let’s be very clear: Donald Trump is not to blame for what happened in Christchurch. The killer was swimming in a cesspool of evil that both predates Trump and is much bigger than him. But let’s also not ignore this: At a moment when America and the world need a leader who will be steadfast in speaking out and trying to stop this spread of toxic white supremacy, the 45th president of the United States is doing the opposite. He is swimming in this sewage, and the killer knew it. He wrote in his manifesto that Trump is “a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose ...”
In the 24 hours after the killing -- a moment when Americans once would have looked to the White House for grace and appeals for unity -- the president acted like a man determined to live up to this murderer’s endorsement. Trump’s complete lack of empathy and inability to even express it, even after the slaughter of 50 innocents, spewed from his Hallmark-random-word-generator that tweeted out “warmest sympathy and best wishes” to New Zealand. Neither that tweet, nor a subsequent statement from the White House, mentioned Muslims, expressed any solidarity with Islamic people, or condemned hatred.
Instead, Trump stuck to his scheduled event -- the veto of congressional efforts to stop his border wall, the fulfillment of his xenophobic campaign promise to spend billions on a crusade to keep out Hispanic people he’s routinely branded as criminals, murderers or rapists. Rather than acknowledge the horror of what happened in New Zealand, the president was dismissive about the white nationalism he foments, saying “I think it’s a small group of people that have very, very serious problems, I guess.” He plowed ahead with the border event, even calling undocumented immigrants “invaders” -- the exact same language used by a man who mowed down 50 worshipers.
Unfortunately, too many Americans have grown numb to the moral inadequacy of this president. Maybe it was a jolt of reality to watch the actions of a real leader -- New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern. In relatively short order, Arden pledged that her government would cover funeral costs for the victims and provide financial support, regardless of immigration status. She donned a hajib and met with survivors at a refugee center, after addressing her Parliament and declaring toward the killer, “We utterly reject and condemn you.” What’s more, Ardern and her ministers pledged to take immediate action on guns, including a ban on semi-automatic weapons that are used to hunt down people.
Many Americans were stunned when they read about that. A government pledging to respond to a tragedy with something more substantive than “thoughts and prayers”? Can you even imagine?
The failure of Trump and his government to acknowledge the growing threat of white nationalism is both feckless and dangerous for the citizens he once swore on a Bible to protect. We haven’t had a white-supremacist massacre on the scale of Christchurch, but we’ve had close calls. A heavily armed and violence-threatening Coast Guard officer Christopher Paul Hassan had written a hate-filled manifesto that echoed many of the same themes cited by New Zealand’s murderer before he was arrested.
It would take too long to chronicle all the times that Trump himself has embraced racism, xenophobia and violence. The trail begins in the earliest weeks of his campaign in 2015, when Trump told a questioner who wanted to get rid of Muslims that “we’re going to be looking at a lot of different things.” And it leads up to last week, when he warned that his “tough supporters” in the police, the military -- even bikers -- have his back, an implied endorsement of violence.
This is the deeper threat of Trump -- the unconscionable moral rot that comes from such a man representing America as our president. The United States has already lost the respect of much of the world for electing Trump and largely tolerating his excesses and abuses. And every day that he remains in the Oval Office and is allowed to spew intolerance and shrug at violence from behind the Formerly Resolute Desk, the ideals upon which America was founded continue to melt away, much like the polar ice caps.
People want easy answers. Thus, the obsession with the criminal probe led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, and the notion that his report will hand up such clear-cut proof of a presidential high crime that the system will have to respond. But the Mueller probe drags on -- last week brought more delays -- and is bleeding into the 2020 election. Even if a Mueller Report gives us answers on Trump, it won’t give us an answer for Trumpism, the poisonous philosophy of white identity now taking root from Australia to upstate Pennsylvania.