After Pearl Harbor, Franklin Roosevelt stood in front of the Senate and told the nation that it had “nothing to fear but fear itself”. After 9/11, George W. Bush stood atop the wreckage of the World Trade Center and told the nation that he would bring the perpetrators of the attack to justice. After the shooting deaths of nine African-American churchgoers at the hands of a white supremacist in Charleston, Barack Obama stood in front of the congregation at their funeral and sang “Amazing Grace” with them. And after the attack on an LGBTQ nightclub in Orlando over the summer, Donald Trump took to Twitter to congratulate himself.
“Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism, I don’t want congrats, I want toughness & vigilance. We must be smart!” he tweeted just after news of the slaughter of 50 clubgoers had broken. About an hour later Trump posted a similar message on Facebook, doubling down on his self-congratulations.
Usually in the aftermath of a national disaster, the nation’s leaders, especially the president, try to put politics aside and provide the public with a degree of comfort and assuredness. Trump’s decision to deviate from this tradition after the Orlando shooting and instead focus on himself call into question his ability to act as “mourner in chief” if elected president. Most Americans would expect to hear their president say that he understood their pain in the wake of a disaster like Orlando, not that he “called” it.
If this were a lone instance of Trump making an inflammatory comment in the wake of a tragedy, it would still be a major cause for concern. In fact, for any other politician it could be a potentially fatal mistake for their political career. Trump, however, has a history of this type of behavior.
In September, when news of the explosion in New York City that injured 29 people broke, Trump attributed the attack to “a bomb” before authorities had even confirmed the cause the attack. Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton, instead took the conventional route of expressing her sadness about the tragedy and saying that she would wait to hear about authorities’ findings on the issue before drawing any conclusions. As it turned out, the suspect in the bombing, who was arrested in September after a shootout with police, acted alone and was not tied to a larger terrorist network or cell.
Trump has even used national tragedies to further his own political aims. After the shooting in San Bernadino, California last December, Trump announced the first iteration of his controversial Muslim ban. While many of his supporters have hailed the proposed ban as an effective solution, many Americans found the proposal to be bigoted and hateful. Law enforcement officials have also noted that the ban would be almost impossible to implement. Trump has since backtracked on his proposal in the past several months in the midst of a public outcry. Certainly, the hysteria caused by his outlandish proposal did not do much to reassure the nation in the wake of San Bernadino.
In addition to causing confusion and breeding hysteria, Trump’s loose lips at sensitive times also make it more difficult for authorities out carry out investigations. The spreading of misinformation only makes it harder for authorities to follow leads and solicit accurate, helpful information from the public. Political leaders also generally remain tight lipped during ongoing investigations so that they do not divulge sensitive information. Trump, however, could give off information that prevents authorities from apprehending a suspect by making comments like those he made following the New York City bombing.
Trump’s misleading comments following the New York City bombing could also potentially give rise to conspiracy theories. Trump has openly courted right-wing conspiracy theorists during the course of his campaign, and even appeared on the radio show of noted conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. After the Orlando shooting Trump even fanned the flames of conspiracy himself by claiming that President Obama had something to do with the shooting.
Trump has become notorious for making false statements during his campaign. By making baseless statements that give power to individuals and sentiments that erode people’s faith in government and contradict the reality of events, however, Trump has sunk to a new low. Someone who questions the very basic integrity of the U.S. government should not lead it.
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