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Mass shootings and presidential rhetoric: Has Trump fanned the flames of hatred?

| Aug 7, 2019 | Criminal Justice |

After a pair of mass shootings left 31 people dead last weekend, the usual questions are back in the spotlight: How could this happen? How can people with such violent proclivities get their hands on such powerful weapons?

And, this time around, a new question is surfacing with even greater urgency: Has Trump’s nationalist rhetoric fueled the fire?

The shootings

Shots first rang out Saturday at a Walmart in the Texas border town of El Paso. The 21-year-old shooter mowed down 22 people before getting taken into custody. The suspect had written a four-page white-supremacist manifesto targeting immigrants and Latinos, which he posted online shortly before the rampage. The manifesto contains language eerily reminiscent of Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric. (More on that below.)

Thirteen hours later, another gunman open fired on a crowd outside a bar in Dayton, Ohio. Using a high-capacity rifle he’d legally purchased online and modified at home, the 23-year-old shooter killed 9 people in less than 30 seconds before he was taken out by a police officer who happened to be on the scene. While the shooter had no apparent political or racist motives, he was a gun enthusiast who had long been obsessed with mass shootings.

The aftermath

Among the many pressing issues stirred up by the shootings, one looms large: Has Trump’s rhetoric fanned the flames of violence among white  supremacists?

In the El Paso shooting, the suspect’s manifesto echoes some of Trump’s exact language and ideas, referencing the “Hispanic invasion,” criticizing “open borders” and “free health care for illegals,” and lamenting the loss of jobs due to the influx of immigrants. Trump himself has used even more dehumanizing language — including “infestation,” “criminals” and “animals” — when referring to Latino immigrants.

In the aftermath of the shootings, Trump expressed support and sympathy for the victims. Yet it didn’t take him long to go on the defensive. Taking to Twitter, he attacked the press coverage of the shootings, kept score on how many mass shootings had occurred during Obama’s presidency (32, by his count), and stated, “I am the least racist person.”

Words matter

The El Paso shooter held extremist views long before Trump took office. Nonetheless, the El Paso shooting illustrates that words matter — especially when they’re coming from the most powerful leader in the free world.

Whether intentionally or not, Trump’s rhetoric has had the effect of encouraging and emboldening white supremacists. His wishy-washy “blame on both sides” response to the white supremacist-motivated killing in Charlottesville two summers ago was widely viewed as giving a pass to white supremacists. And more recently, Trump unleashed his rhetoric on elected representatives, tweeting that several Congresswomen of color should “go back” to their own countries instead of “telling people of the United States… how our government is to be run.”

When this kind of divisive rhetoric persistently comes from the mouth of our president, is it any surprise that extremists are seizing upon it to take violent action?

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