By Charles M. Madigan
Blame is a specific concept generally focused not on whole societies or even pieces of them, but on individuals.
We cannot blame President Trump for what happened when one of his ardent backers decided to send mail bombs to key Democratic leaders. We can’t blame President Trump for an assault in what had been a peaceful synagogue in the heart of a beautiful Pittsburgh neighborhood where Mr. Rogers lived.
Blame is more direct and depends on the undeniable accumulation of evidence.
Robert D. Bowers, who pulled the trigger on the AR-15s in Pittsburgh at the synagogue with the painfully ironic name of “Tree of Life,” was charged with the blame for the 11 deaths and six injuries that followed. Cesar Sayoc, a man who lived in his strange little van covered with pro-Trump posters and anti-Democratic paste-ons, was blamed for assembling the 14 or so home-made bombs delivered to the hierarchy of the Democratic Party.
That is how the law will view these felony cases, the results of evidence threads that prove beyond a reasonable doubt what happened.
Trump must carry a different burden in these cases, indeed in a variety of incidents since he took office that were, perhaps, inspired by his heated rhetoric or the passion with which he pursued his political enemies. Whatever this thing is, it is vague enough to have some shape, but not clear enough to thump down firmly at his office door.
People want to call it “responsibility,” but that doesn’t fit because it is too literal.
Trump has used rhetoric to unleash, at most, an essence that somehow taps either well- established angers or unleashes angers that were somewhat hidden until an opportunity came along to free them. Immigration is a political subject full of these opportunities. So are race and religion and other labels that help fill out identity.
He is that most peculiar figure in politics, a character despised by those who oppose him and almost blindly followed by those who benefit from the connection with him. Because of that, he sees no conflict in despairing, on the one hand, the decline of civility in public discourse and then crowing, almost at the same time, about the evils and weaknesses of his enemies.
The screaming affections of his crowds blow all of that away, leaving him warm, fluffy and happy no matter the circumstance. He has a constant “win-loss” meter at play in every circumstance. It’s not the heartbreak in Pittsburgh that he thinks about, it’s whether he comes out of it in good standing. It’s not the bombs sent to the Democrats. No, it’s whether people get back on board the momentum train before the midterm elections.
We have never had a politician like this reach such high office, although there are scoundrels aplenty in the lower ranks. The prospect of watching two more years of the rationalization that fuels him like an athletes’ breakfast is daunting. He has no sense of decency to turn to, no national goodwill to fall back on, and it doesn’t seem to bother him a bit.
He will simply line up more rallies in the airport hangers of rural America, pack those arenas with confused believers, and bask in the noise of affection the roaring crowd creates. Media will hand him the coverage that, in his mind, legitimizes this kind of behavior.
The problem with all of this is it allows him to skip away from the responsibility he certainly does bear, that “sense of the nation” that has defined every presidency in the modern era. It will be there when they bury the dead in Pittsburgh, because we remain a people of good will.
But we need leaders who understand that, not as a political tool, but as the steel at the center of our own mythology.
Charles M. Madigan is a retired professor and a former foreign and national correspondent and editor.