White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney stated an interesting hypothesis today on Face the Nation: “Donald Trump is no more to blame for what happened in New Zealand than Mark Zuckerberg is because he invented Facebook.” This hypothesis does not entirely exonerate his boss, does it? We can save Zuckerberg’s degree of culpability for another day. Meanwhile, Mulvaney, unprompted by anything said by interviewer Margaret Brennan, began to argue that the president is the true victim here, of leftist mobs, of course. Brennan was trying to get Mulvaney to acknowledge that white nationalist and supremacist extremism is a rising threat, but Mulvaney wiggled out of such an affirmation (because it would contradict his boss) by deflecting to “Trump unfairly blamed for everything.”
Of course the president is not criminally liable for the mass murder by an Australian who massacred peaceful worshippers in a mosque in New Zealand, even if the murderer cited Trump as a defender of “white identity and common purpose” and even if the murderer cribbed some of his talking points from the US president. And of course Mark Zuckerberg is (as far as I know) not criminally liable for failing to do a better and quicker job taking down toxic, racist, hateful content from its platforms. But if Mr. Mulvaney and Mr. Trump are eager to puff themselves up by claiming that Trump is a quasi-royal figure whose near-divine intervention has miraculously cured this or that problem, they are on shaky ground denying any connection at all between Trump’s public bile toward immigrants, Muslims, and other convenient Others, and acts of racial hatred.
Trump has made a specialty for decades of what historian Peter Gay called “the cultivation of hatred” (Gay was writing about “the bourgeois experience Victoria to Freud”). According to Mr. Gay, “every culture, every century, constructs its distinctive alibis for aggression…. these alibis [give] valuable clues to the murky, largely unconscious domain of intimate human needs and anxieties…. Nothing seems more natural than the ease with which humans claim superiority over a collective Other. It is an immensely serviceable alibi for aggression, solidifying the bracing sense of one’s merits–or assuaging the secret fear of one’s imperfections. The discovery that outsiders are dogged by grave, perhaps repulsive defects grants, as it were, permission to think angry thoughts and commit hostile acts” (The Cultivation of Hatred, pp. 36- 37, 68). When the president of the United States has displayed a pattern over many years of giving or withholding the benefit of the doubt to others based on their color, and a pattern of condemning or excusing aggression based on ethnicity and religion and skin color, and refused to acknowledge the glaringly obvious and lethal threat to society of rightwing white supremacist violence–it’s far from absurd to suggest that he is morally if not legally culpable and that he has disgraced the office he holds.