Analysis: Politics presses on amid tragedy
Washington – President Donald Trump’s campaign rallies continued. Attack ads stayed on the airwaves. Political combat largely carried on.
Amid a wave of election-season violence that left many Americans on edge, the contentious midterm campaign has barreled forward with little pause. Trump and other politicians disavowed the pipe bombs sent to prominent Democrats and condemned the massacre of 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue this past week. But the divisiveness that has dominated the nation’s politics kept creeping back.
During a rally Saturday night, Trump asked a crowd of red-hatted supporters if it was OK for him to “tone it down, just a little bit.” When the crowd roared back with a decisive “No!” Trump replied: “I had a feeling you might say that.”
The attacks are a grim capstone to a midterm campaign that will serve as a referendum on Trump, whose unorthodox approach to the presidency is particularly glaring in times of tragedy. With less than two weeks to go before Election Day, Trump was among many politicians who largely stuck to the script, raising questions about whether Americans are becoming increasingly desensitized in the wake of tragedy.
“It feels in this moment like there’s a numbness,” said Jennifer Psaki, who served as a campaign and White House adviser to former President Barack Obama. “When there’s a tragedy, the nation is a little rudderless.”
Some Trump supporters have begun to suggest that the president modulate his searing and personal attacks on his opponents – including those targeted by the Trump supporter who allegedly mailed pipe bombs to several Democrats.
“In general, we got to tone it down,” said Anthony Scaramucci, who briefly served as Trump’s White House communications director, in an interview on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “He’s the president of the United States. He controls the news cycle and the bully pulpit. And he could do it.”
To be sure, Trump has struck some conciliatory notes in recent days, including vowing to do “everything in my power as president” to stop political violence. He condemned the synagogue shooting as an “evil anti-Semitic attack” and called it “an assault on all of us.”
But with just over a week before elections that will determine the control of Congress, Trump has also expressed frustration that outside events are distracting from what he sees as rising GOP momentum. In a tweet last week, he put the word “bomb” in quotation marks and said the media was “not talking politics.”
He also said he would “probably pass” on reaching out to pipe-bomb targets Hillary Clinton or Obama – overtures that would almost certainly have garnered bipartisan praise.
He’s also kept up some of his attacks on others targeted with pipe bombs. On Sunday he called Democratic megadonor Tom Steyer a “crazed & stumbling lunatic” and warned that backing Democratic candidates would be a vote for California Rep. Maxine Waters, who he has previously said has a low IQ. The president also did nothing on Saturday to stop his supporters from chanting “lock her up” – a frequent rally refrain about Clinton, his opponent in the 2016 presidential election.
After a riff about another of his favorite foes – Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who was not targeted in the pipe bomb plot – Trump seemed to acknowledge that there were limits to his ability to ratchet down his rhetoric.
“We can’t resist,” he said.
Asked about Trump’s decision to keep campaigning amid tragedy, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump was “committed to the safety and security of all Americans, and he mourns with the nation in the aftermath of the evil anti-Semitic attack in Pittsburgh.” She added that Trump was committed “to supporting leaders who will fight alongside him to protect the safety and security of all Americans, grow our booming economy and move our country forward.”
Of course, Democrats have been just as blistering in their condemnation of Trump during the midterm campaign. Some have declared him unfit for office and a danger to democracy. Many were also quick to blame him for creating the atmosphere that led to this week’s violence.
“There’s no escaping the tone that he sets,” U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, a California Democrat and frequent Trump critic, said Sunday on CNN. “It’s going to fall on the rest of us to make this a more perfect union to bring people together, to accentuate our common humanity.”
It was mainly in Pennsylvania where the impact of the violence on the campaign was really noticeable.
After Saturday’s shooting, there were a few moves to tamp down campaigning. Democrats Sen. Bob Casey and Gov. Tom Wolf and Wolf’s Republican opponent, Scott Wagner, all announced on Sunday that they were canceling campaign events. Wolf also took campaign ads off the air.
But across the country, millions of dollars in negative political advertisements still filled the airwaves, including some referencing billionaire George Soros, a liberal donor who received the first pipe bomb last week.
Rep. Steve Stivers, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, defended one such ad, saying “you know, that ad is factual.”
Violence has intruded in political campaigns before. When a gunman killed 12 people in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, during the height of the 2012 presidential campaign, both Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney paused some campaign activities.
“There are going to be other days for politics,” Obama said at the time.
Trump’s explanation for going forward with his political events was far different.
“We have our schedules, and nobody’s going to change it,” he said. “So we’re here.”