IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Trump just showed his true character, again, at a New York police officer’s wake

Most presidents usually grasp for unity after tragedy. Trump stokes division.

When Donald Trump announced that he would attend a wake for slain New York City Police Officer Jonathan Diller, the conservative New York Post wrote approvingly that the former president was “expected to cite the young cop’s shooting death as another example of runaway crime.” And so he did. At the ceremony for Diller, who was killed at a traffic stop Monday. Trump was uninterested in trying to bring the country together to make sense of the tragedy. In other words, he was himself.

“It’s happening all too often and we’re just not going to let it happen,” he said to the press outside the funeral home. “We have to get back to law and order,” he went on. “The only thing we can say is, maybe something is going to be learned. We’ve gotta toughen it up, we’ve gotta strengthen it up. This should never be allowed.”

Distortion of the truth is only part of Trump’s problem.

Trump’s picture of a national hellscape in which law and order have disappeared is false. Crime is down dramatically over the last year, including in the very cities that Trump characterizes as thunderdomes of mayhem and murder. Boston, for instance — a city of 650,000 people — has had only two homicides so far in 2024. Perhaps the Massachusetts liberals have something to teach the rest of the country about preventing crime?

But distortion of the truth is only part of Trump’s problem. Every president is forced to respond to unexpected tragedy, whether it’s a single police officer gunned down, a mass shooting that kills dozens or a natural disaster that takes hundreds of lives. The messages they send at those moments tell us a good deal about how they view themselves in relation to the country.

Most presidents usually grasp for unity, trying to find in shock and grief something that can transcend political differences and forge some common purpose, even if only temporarily. Not every president succeeds, either because of their own weaknesses or because too many resist their call to come together. But for some, the high points of their presidencies came when tragedy called them to bring the country together.

Ronald Reagan gave one of the most affecting speeches of his presidency after the Challenger space shuttle exploded in 1986. Because one of the crew members was a schoolteacher from New Hampshire, he spoke directly to the schoolchildren who had watched the horrible event unfold: “I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It’s all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It’s all part of taking a chance and expanding man’s horizons. The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we’ll continue to follow them.” 

George W. Bush had the most memorable moment of his presidency standing atop the rubble at the World Trade Center, when he responded to someone shouting that they couldn’t hear him by saying “I can hear you, the rest of the world hears you and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!” The events of the next few years made his ad-libbed speech more than ironic, but at that moment it seemed to be exactly the resolve many Americans wanted to hear.

Between Obama and Biden, Republicans elected the darkest of presidents, one who is incapable of even trying to create unity out of tragedy.

Barack Obama had more than his share of mass shootings to mourn, and if his eloquence did not unite the country, it was only because so many refused to hear anything positive from him. At one of those memorials, after Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot and six people killed in Tucson, Arizona, in 2011, he said, “As we discuss these issues, let each of us do so with a good dose of humility. Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let’s use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy and remind ourselves of all the ways that our hopes and dreams are bound together.” 

That quest for unity was one of the core themes of Obama’s career, and his failure to achieve it was not for lack of trying. His opponents were so venomous in their hatred that they wouldn’t grant him their agreement even in those darkest moments when he appealed for nothing more than a little introspection and thought for our common humanity.

Likewise, Joe Biden has made repeated pleas for the parties and the country to come together. The word “unity” appeared eight times in his inaugural address, in which he said, “My whole soul is in this, bringing America together, uniting our people, uniting our nation. And I ask every American to join me in this cause.” As it was for Obama, that goal remains unfulfilled, not because Biden hasn’t sincerely pursued it but because he finds so few takers in the other party.

Between Obama and Biden, Republicans elected the darkest of presidents, one who is incapable of even trying to create unity out of tragedy. Trump sees death and despair only as a means of setting Americans against each other or aggrandizing himself. While smoke was still rising over the World Trade Center in 2001, he bragged that a building he owned was now the tallest in lower Manhattan (it wasn’t). After a gunman killed 17 people in a school shooting in Parkland, Florida, Trump mused that had he been there he would have stopped the shooter (“I really believe I’d run in there even if I didn’t have a weapon”). 

It may not be the worst of his many character flaws, but it is one thrown into especially sharp relief by the presidency. When the country needed him most — at those moments when Americans look to their president to bring them together — Trump was often at his worst. And there’s every reason to think he’ll be even worse if he takes office again.