“This wicked act of mass murder is pure evil, hard to believe, and frankly, something that is unimaginable,” President Donald Trump said of the carnage that took place Saturday in a Pittsburgh synagogue where worshipers had gathered to celebrate the dawn of a new life.
If only that were true.
To anyone who has been paying attention, the slaughter that took place at the Tree of Life Synagogue seemed not only imaginable but also inevitable.
It was not inevitable just because anti-Semitic activity, including hate crimes in schools and bomb threats against Jewish institutions, has been soaring — up an unprecedented 57 percent last year, according to the Anti-Defamation League. That is the symptom. The cause is a climate in which the sentiments of white nationalists and other hate groups are no longer suppressed.
Hate groups feel emboldened to show their faces in public, as they did when they marched last year in Charlottesville, Virginia, chanting: “Jews will not replace us.” That, too, had a deadly result. But the president of the United States insisted there had been moral equivalency between the neo-Nazis and those who had shown up to protest them: “There are two sides to a story. I thought what took place was a horrible moment for the country, but there are two sides to a story.”
In the Trump era, people who should be shunned are embraced, and made practically mainstream. Some who call themselves our political leaders even go out of their way to do it. This month, Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, ventured into Canadian politics with an endorsement of Faith Goldy, a white-supremacist fringe candidate running for mayor of Toronto.
He later said he was not aware of her white-nationalist sentiments, which included a recommendation that her followers read a 1937 book that called for the elimination of Jews.
But King was the same guy who took a free trip in August to visit Holocaust sites in Poland, and capped it off by going to meet with a right-wing Austrian party that has historical ties to the Nazis. As The Post’s Mike DeBonis reported:
“In an interview with a website associated with the party, King, R-Iowa, declared that ‘Western civilization is on the decline,’ spoke of the replacement of white Europeans by immigrants and criticized Hungarian American financier George Soros, who has backed liberal groups around the world.
“King spoke to the Unzensuriert site Aug. 24 in Vienna, a day after concluding a five-day journey to Jewish and Holocaust historical sites in Poland, including the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. The trip, including airfare to and from Europe, was financed by From the Depths, an international nonprofit group that seeks to educate lawmakers about the Holocaust.”
What was the reaction of other Republicans to this? Silence.
Then again, Trump himself has set this tone, going back to the way he campaigned for president in 2016. As my colleague Dana Milbank observed in the closing days of that election season:
“Donald Trump and his surrogates have been playing footsie with American neo-Nazis for months: tweeting their memes, retweeting their messages, appearing on their radio shows. After an Oct. 13 speech in which Trump warned that Hillary Clinton ‘meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty’ and that ‘a global power structure’ is conspiring against ordinary Americans, the Anti-Defamation League urged Trump to ‘avoid rhetoric and tropes that historically have been used against Jews.’
“Well, Trump just gave his reply. On Friday, he released a closing ad for his campaign repeating offending lines from that speech, this time illustrated with images of prominent Jews: financier George Soros (accompanying the words ‘those who control the levers of power’), Fed Chair Janet Yellen (with the words ‘global special interests’) and Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein (following the ‘global power structure’ quote). The ad shows Hillary Clinton and says she partners ‘with these people who don’t have your good in mind.’”
None of that, of course, is a license for what happened Saturday in Pittsburgh. But it is a dangerous game to play. Now, what Trump claims to have been unimaginable has actually happened on his watch. He is right to denounce an act so vile — but he and others in his party must quit giving hatred the oxygen and sunlight it needs to grow.
Karen Tumulty is a Washington Post columnist covering national politics.
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