When a gunman killed 11 worshippers at a Pittsburgh synagogue Saturday, one of the first questions raised was the role of Donald Trump.
In an editorial titled “The hate poisoning America,” the New York Times wrote that while the killer bore primary responsibility for the massacre, Trump deserved blame for coarsening political discourse.
“As a candidate and as president,” the newspaper said, “Mr. Trump has failed to consistently, unequivocally reject bigotry and has even encouraged violence at some of his rallies.”
It was a theme echoed throughout much of the media. Coming hard on the heels of the pipe bomb incidents — in which several prominent critics of the U.S. president had been sent explosive devices through the mail — it confirmed for many their belief that Trump’s divisive rhetoric represents a danger to liberal democracy.
Yet the evidence for this is unclear. Statistics collected by the FBI are available only to the end of 2016, just before Trump became president. They show that the number of hate crime incidents hit 9,730 in 2001 during George W. Bush’s presidency, fell to 5,479 in 2014 under Barack Obama and began to rise again after that.
Using different criteria, the Anti-Defamation League says that the number of anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S., including those that are not hate crimes, rose to 1,986 in 2017 — a year over year increase of 57 per cent.
But the league draws no conclusions about the role of the Trump presidency, noting only that the number of anti-Semitic incidents in schools and colleges increased significantly.
Indeed, given the fact that Trump’s daughter and son-in-law are Jewish, and taking into account his rock-ribbed support for Israel as a Jewish state, it might seem odd for him to encourage anti-Semitism.
Certainly, the alleged Pittsburgh shooter thought so. He reportedly said online that he didn’t vote for Trump because the president had too many Jews in his entourage.
Yet the idea of Trump as anti-Semite has taken hold. In fact, so deeply entrenched is this and other notions of Trump villainy, that nothing he does on any front is able to satisfy his critics.
When he threatened to unleash “fire and fury” on North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, he was labelled a warmonger. Yet when he agreed to negotiate with Kim, he was accused of pandering to autocrats.
Under Trump, the U.S. is taking part in massive NATO war games aimed at Russia. Yet the president is still routinely excoriated for threatening to abandon the alliance.
Trump’s administration has successfully renegotiated a free trade deal with Canada and Mexico. It is trying to make a similar pact with Japan. Yet he is routinely dismissed as an isolationist determined to undo the world economic order.
What is it about Donald Trump that drives otherwise rational people to distraction?
In large part, it is his style. He is a blowhard and a bully who insists on being the centre of attention. Many politicians misrepresent the truth. But Trump does so on a massive scale.
Worse, he is a vulgarian. Although born to money, he exhibits all of the attributes of the classic nouveau riche — garishness, insecurity, braggadocio.
He watches Fox News and eats cheeseburgers in bed. He is in many ways a normal American — an unforgivable sin for those who want the presidency to signify ethereal U.S. virtues.
The other aspect of Trump that drives his critics mad is that he is successful. His crudeness works.
He has effectively captured the Republican Party and made it his own. He has lowered taxes for the rich, a long-time Republican aim. And he has appointed two conservatives to the Supreme Court, another Republican goal.
His rambling, stream of consciousness speeches at rallies may make no sense when written down, but they energize his supporters.
In spite of all his obvious faults, he has shown himself to be an astute politician. Those who would dismiss him should keep that in mind.
Thomas Walkom is a Toronto-based columnist covering politics. Follow him on Twitter: @tomwalkom