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The Denialists

It takes a lot of work to try to exonerate the president’s fomenting of racist violence, but Trump fans are giving it their all.
August 9, 2019
The Denialists
President Donald Trump speaks to the media before leaving for Dayton, Ohio and El Paso, Texas on August 7, 2019 in Washington, D.C. Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty Images)

“This attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.” —The El Paso killer’s manifesto

Byron York wants to make sure we know that Donald Trump did not inspire what happened in El Paso. Just read the killer’s manifesto, he insists

Even though the president has repeatedly described illegal immigration as “an invasion” of our country, York contends that is unfair and misleading to suggest that Trump motivated the attack. And despite the fact that Trump’s campaign has posted more than 2,000 ads on Facebook that include the word “invasion,” York is here to tell us that the manifesto is not Trumpian at all.

Was the El Paso shooter “inspired by President Trump?” he asks. “It is hard to make that case looking at the manifesto in its entirety.” 

York’s agnosticism is reinforced by the snarky whataboutism of Marc Thiessen, who argues in the Washington Post that “if Democrats want to play politics with mass murder, it works both ways.” The killer in Dayton, he writes “seems to have been a left-wing radical whose social media posts echoed Democrats’ hate-filled attacks on the president and U.S. immigration officials.” 

So both sides. And, while you’re at it, give Trump a break. 

While most conservatives continue to maintain a cringing silence at the president’s behavior, York and Thiessen form a vanguard of denialism. Others are sure to follow and amplify the message, because we know how this works.  An entire cottage industry has arisen on the right denying, for example, that Trump called neo-Nazi’s in Charlottesville “very fine people.” So expect the gaslighting to continue until morale improves.

York really wants us to know that the El Paso shooter had lots of things going on besides racism. The killer decided to murder Hispanics because he thought they were “invaders” who wanted to “replace” us. But other than that …

 Crusius worried about many things, if the manifesto is any indication. He certainly worried about immigration, but also about automation. About job losses. About a universal basic income. Oil drilling. Urban sprawl. Watersheds. Plastic waste. Paper waste. A blue Texas. College debt. Recycling. Healthcare. Sustainability. And more. Large portions of the manifesto simply could not be more un-Trumpian.

Water sheds. Plastic waste. Recycling. And, so you see, not Trumpian at all. This assumes, of course, that we know what constitutes Trumpism, that protean mess that adapts so easily to different agendas and impulses. It’s almost as if York hasn’t been reading our friends at American Greatness, or the other populist illiberal rethinkers who also seem to be worried about many things other than immigration. Tucker Carlson, for example, has staked out a notably nationalist and anti-immigrant position, but often sounds a lot like Elizabeth Warren. 

In any case, the argument is silly on its face:  a Nazi who worries about transportation policy and recycling is still … a Nazi. A racist who supports a basic income is still… a racist. 

But let’s not complicate York’s point here: His article aims to deny the connection between Trumpian language and the ideology behind the violence. The first job is to suggest that the whole thing is nuts.

“First, to be clear,” writes York. “The manifesto is insane.”

But York wants us to take the word “insane” seriously, but not literally. So, for example, he quotes a lengthy section of the manifesto:

They intend to use open borders, free healthcare for illegals, citizenship and more to enact a political coup by importing and then legalizing millions of new voters. With policies like these, the Hispanic support for Democrats will likely become nearly unanimous in the future. The heavy Hispanic population in Texas will make us a Democrat stronghold. Losing Texas and a few other states with heavy Hispanic population to the Democrats is all it would take for them to win nearly every presidential election. Although the Republican Party is also terrible. Many factions within the Republican Party are pro-corporation. Pro-corporation = pro-immigration. But some factions within the Republican Party don’t prioritize corporations over our future. So the Democrats are nearly unanimous with their support of immigration while the Republicans are divided over it. At least with Republicans, the process of mass immigration and citizenship can be greatly reduced.

Actually, admits York, this makes a lot of sense. “That is a not-inaccurate restatement of some of the calculations that have been going on in both Republican and Democratic strategy rooms around the country for many years, certainly before the emergence of Donald Trump as a presidential candidate,” he writes.

In other words, not insane at all.

 In fact, it’s almost boilerplate Trumpian analysis. If you heard it on the Laura Ingraham show or read in in the Federalist, or even York’s own publication, you wouldn’t bat an eye. 

But what York really wants is for us to accept at face value the shooter’s statement that his actions were not inspired by Trump. In his manifesto, the shooter wrote that “my opinions on automation, immigration, and the rest predate Trump and his campaign for president.” He knew, he said that “some people will blame the President or certain presidential candidates for the attack. This is not the case. I know that the media will probably call me a white supremacist anyway and blame Trump’s rhetoric. The media is infamous for fake news. Their reaction to this attack will likely just confirm that.”

In the end, that’s York’s story, and he’s sticking to it. 

Although he shares York’s zeal to exonerate Trump, Marc Thiessen relies less on superficial analysis than disingenuous hackery. If you want to blame Trump for El Paso, he writes, then aren’t the Democrats also responsible for the killings in Dayton?

He admits that this sort of thing is a political “game.” 

Should we blame Warren for the Dayton massacre carried out by one of her supporters? How about Sanders, whose anti-capitalist rhetoric may have inflamed this young socialist? Or maybe we should blame Ocasio-Cortez for disgracefully comparing U.S. immigration facilities to “concentration camps” — a phrase that appears to have caught the Dayton shooter’s attention? 

Thiessen’s answer? 

The answer to these questions is of course not. While the rhetoric used by these prominent Democrats is horrifying, they are not to blame. But they also can’t have it both ways: If Trump is responsible for El Paso, then Democrats are responsible for Dayton.

So even Thiessen seems to recognize that his argument is low-rent sophistry.

We know what motivated the shooter in El Paso. We still do not know what motivated the Dayton shooter, and there is no evidence that he was moved by ideology—much less “socialism”—rather than mental illness or other demons. 

What we do know is that he was a deeply disturbed young man who kept “kill” and “rape” lists. 

Both former classmates told The Associated Press that Betts was suspended during their junior year at suburban Bellbrook High School after a hit list was found scrawled in a school bathroom. That followed an earlier suspension after Betts came to school with a list of female students he wanted to sexually assault, according to the two classmates…

“There was a kill list and a rape list, and my name was on the rape list,” said the female classmate.

Thiessen presumably knows this. But he ignores it because it complicates his efforts to create an artificial moral equivalency where none exists. 

Like York, he wants to make the picture blurry.  And it must be done, right? Because this is the nature of the bargain: conservatives agree to swallow their qualms about Trump because they get so many of things they want—from tax cuts to judges. 

But this week has exposed the flaw in that Faustian bargain: It is one thing to accept boorishness or dishonesty in exchange for policy wins; but what about a president who foments racist violence, who inspires acts of domestic terrorism? Writes Bret Stephens:

It’s worth noting that the Walmart massacre is, as far as I know, the first large scale anti-Hispanic terrorist attack in the United States in living memory.  On current trend, it will surely not be the last or the worst. The language of infestation inevitably suggests the “solution” of extermination. As for the cliché that sensible people are supposed to take Trump seriously but not literally, it looks like Patrick Crusius didn’t get that memo.

Even for a party inured to rationalization, this may be too much. As one observer told me: “If voters come to believe that Trump is not only a racist but also a racist who provokes terrorists, his presidency cannot be rescued.”

So the denialists must deny.

Charlie Sykes

Charlie Sykes is a founder and editor-at-large of The Bulwark and the author of How the Right Lost Its Mind. He is also the host of The Bulwark Podcast and an MSNBC contributor.