Thursday, November 1, 2018

Trump the Nationalist Opts to be the Provocateur-in-Chief, not the Comforter-in-Chief

Over the last 40 years I’ve been to Pittsburgh numerous times, mostly for work to meet retailers and walk their stores, but also for pleasure. Our family checked out Carnegie Mellon University before Dan chose Tufts. We returned to Carnegie Mellon a few years later when Ellie participated in a summer theater program for high schoolers. Our niece Julie and fiancé Matt attended graduate schools in Pittsburgh and opted to marry there. During those non business trips, visiting Squirrel Hill was invariably a part of our Steel City itinerary. 

Unless you are a devotee of everything modern with sharp edges and crisp lines, you would fall in love with Squirrel Hill. Every home is unique. Each residence conveys the theme that families live in distinctly individual homes in concert with their neighbors. Naturally, it was the neighborhood Fred Rogers chose to live in. 

The Tree of Life Synagogue is an imposing structure near one fringe of Squirrel Hill. 

Tree of Life. In Hebrew it is Etz Hayim. The first reference in the Bible to the phrase “tree of life” comes in Genesis 2, verse 9: “And from the ground the Lord God caused to grow every tree that was pleasing to the sight and good for food, with the tree of life in the middle of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and bad.”

When Jews refer to Etz Hayim it is not meant as a symbol of eternal life. Rather, it conveys their dedication to the precepts embodied in the Torah. When the Torah scroll is returned to the ark after it is read during services the prayer chanted concludes with the following affirmation: “I have given you a precious inheritance. Do not forsake my teaching. It is a Tree of Life for those who grasp it, and all who hold onto it are blessed. Its ways are pleasant, and all its paths are peace.”

How cruel that a horrific death, not a peaceful end of life, visited the Tree of Life sanctuary in Pittsburgh Saturday morning. How grotesquely ironic that it was the morning when a brit milah, a ritual circumcision, was to be held welcoming a newborn male into the Jewish faith and its covenant with God.

It is irrefutable, demons affected Robert Bowers. His hatred of Jews, the social programs they support and the presence of immigrants simmered into a boiling point that drove him to kill 11 worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue and to spout to police his desire to kill all Jews. 

Considered as a lone act of anti-Semitism, xenophobia  and religious intolerance, one could dismiss Bowers as a societal aberrant. But the number of anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic and religious bigotry incidents has multiplied in the last two years. Coincidence that those years coincide with Donald Trump’s campaign and election? Hardly.

Those who don’t see a direct correlation between Trump’s divisive rhetoric and the increase in hate crimes are deluding themselves and enabling miscreants among us to step out of the shadows, march openly and, in the most extreme circumstances, act out their lethal, bigoted manifesto. 

Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders defended Trump’s rhetoric by saying his intent was to vocalize differences in “policy” as a lead up to the election and beyond. But how is name calling a “policy?” How is demeaning women, or Mexicans, or Moslems a “policy?” Is it an appropriate “policy” to suggest that neo Nazis shouting anti-Semitic tropes are good people, comparable to those who protest their freedom to march? 

Trump says he is a “nationalist.” How much clearer could Trump be to the white nationalists who profess the same extreme bile Bowers digested and spewed forth. Almost everything Trump says and does, including retweeting white nationalist code words, reinforces his antipathy toward ethnic groups. 

The latest example is his desire to circumvent a key portion of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. He wants to do away with birthright citizenship, the right of anyone born in the United States to claim citizenship even if their mother came to our country illegally. 

One can argue the legitimacy of the need for such a position as a means to control illegal immigration, but Trump elevated the discussion to the level of autocrat versus (small d) democrat. 

I can’t fault Trump for wanting to alter the consequences of the 14th Amendment. After all, he doesn’t like the law.

But a president cannot unilaterally change the Constitution. Amendments to the Constitution cannot be tossed aside by executive order as Trump has posited. Amendments must be repealed. It’s a complex process. Not even Congress has the exclusive power to change the Constitution. One way is for Congress and three-quarters of the states do pass a repeal or further amendment. 

Trump and his reactionary advisors might believe the presidency imbues imperialistic, autocratic powers, but a precise reading of the amendment’s wording is clear: 

“All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

Trump hangs his argument on the phrase “subject to the jurisdiction thereof,” asserting that illegal aliens are not under U.S. jurisdiction. Clearly, Trump would prosecute any illegal immigrant charged with committing a murder, thus implying that the accused indeed was under U.S. jurisdiction. (For a more lawyerly analysis why Trump’s plan is faulty, click

Still, Trump’s advisors, presumably constitutional mavens, are advising he pursue the action, which raises troubling issues: Are these the people who are suggesting nominations to the federal judiciary? And, now that Trump has packed the Supreme Court with two hard-right justices, will they be part of a majority opinion that validates his power grab? 

Just as Bowers has a “loose screw” to have perpetrated despicable murders, Trump, as well, lacks a full set of emotional genes. His near first reaction to the shooting was to blame the victims and their fellow congregants for not employing an armed guard. Never mind that four heavily armed policemen were shot while trying to subdue the assailant. 

For Trump the massacre in Pittsburgh was business as usual. Presented with an opportunity to be the comforter-in-chief to a community and nation shocked with grief, he chose instead to again play the provocateur-in-chief, as he did after the white nationalist march on Charlottesville.

He will not change. We should stop wishing he would. We can only hope enough voters comprehend the dangerous precipice on which our republic now rests. Tuesday we will find out if they do.