Former President Barack Obama raised a few eyebrows yesterday when he issued a statement on the latest mass shootings and included some rather pointed language. The Democrat emphasized efforts policymakers could take to help reduce gun violence, while encouraging law-enforcement agencies and technology companies to “come up with better strategies to reduce the influence” of hate groups.
But perhaps most notable was Obama’s insistence that Americans “should soundly reject language coming out of the mouths of any of our leaders that feeds a climate of fear and hatred or normalizes racist sentiments.” The former president went on to condemn leaders who “demonize those who don’t look like us, or suggest that other people, including immigrants, threaten our way of life, or refer to other people as sub-human, or imply that America belongs to just one certain type of people.”
It was only a matter of time before Donald Trump responded, and this morning, the sitting president published this tweet, quoting Fox News’ “Fox and Friends.”
“Did George Bush ever condemn President Obama after Sandy Hook. President Obama had 32 mass shootings during his reign. Not many people said Obama is out of Control. Mass shootings were happening before the President even thought about running for Pres.” @kilmeade @foxandfriends
One could respond to this by explaining that none of the Obama-era mass shootings were carried out by people claiming kinship with the Democratic president. In contrast, there are too many examples of Americans committing acts of violence while invoking Donald Trump’s name.
As Aaron Blake joked this morning, “We all remember when Obama warned about the ‘invasion’ of elementary school children.”
But what struck me as just as important, if not more so, was the fact that Obama never mentioned Donald Trump by name. The Republican and his allies saw Obama reference “leaders” who feed “a climate of fear and hatred,” and they simply assumed that Trump was the intended target.
It’s amazing how often this comes up.
In February, for example, filmmaker Spike Lee said in his Academy Awards acceptance speech, “Let’s all be on the right side of history. Make the moral choice between love versus hate.”
The Republican president was outraged, describing Lee’s comments as a “racist hit” on Trump.
Lee hadn’t mentioned Trump’s name – or said anything racist, for that matter – but the president heard a man encourage Americans to choose love over hate, and Trump immediately felt insulted.
As regular readers may recall, something similar happened during John McCain’s memorial services. Trump’s name was not uttered, but many who eulogized the late senator went out of their way to contrast his lifetime of service with those who, in Barack Obama’s words, are “small and mean and petty.”
People close to the president reportedly “fumed” during the event, and “grew angry” with the veiled criticisms. But again, as was the case with Spike Lee’s speech, Trump’s name didn’t come up. Confronted with oblique references to dishonorable people of weak character, assumptions quickly turned to the current Oval Office occupant.
Perhaps my favorite example came in 2017, when, on the 4th of July, NPR published a series of tweets with the text of the Declaration of Independence – infuriating Trump fans who assumed the phrasing from the document attacking King George III was actually an attack on the Republican president.
Several months earlier, Barack Obama spoke at an event at Pearl Harbor and told attendees, “Even when hatred burns hottest, even when the tug of tribalism is at its most primal, we must resist the urge to turn inward. We must resist the urge to demonize those who are different.” Trump, naturally, assumed the Democratic president was directing the comments at him.
Way back in early 2009, the Department of Homeland Security released reports about ideological extremists, alerting law enforcement officials to potentially violent groups and organizations. (A decade later, those findings are clearly relevant anew.) At the time, Republicans and conservative activists were apoplectic – even though the report was commissioned by the Bush administration – because much of the right feared that concerns about dangerous radicals might apply to them directly.
In effect, the right heard officials’ concerns about potentially violent, hate-filled militants, and responded, “Hey, that sounds like a description of us.” The controversy, such as it was, ended up saying more about the conservatives who whined than the law-enforcement officials who prepared the report.
A decade later, what does it say about Trump that he hears references to “fear” and “hatred” and takes great offense?