When tragedy strikes, the media yearns for a real president. We still don't have one.
Don't praise Trump's pantomimed display of normality after Vegas
Waking up to a mass shooting that is exceptional even by American standards is bad enough. Adding insult to psychic injury is CNN's coverage of such a shooting in the age of Trump.
Minutes before the president was set to address the nation in his role as "consoler in chief" on Monday morning, CNN talking heads John King, John Berman, and David Chalian solemnly intoned that while various unnamed others were prematurely busy making political hay of the shooting, President Trump was no doubt going to leave such gross political haymaking at the proverbial water's edge. Yes, the very same President Trump who, according to CNN, has a proclivity for "getting ahead of the news." Yet on this tragic morning, Trump was "low-key," almost — what's the word for it? — "presidential"!
Soon enough, Trump did indeed read from a prepared statement that eschewed political axe-grinding and, instead, focused on our unbreakable bonds of citizenship in the face of unmistakable evil. Trump's speech was "pitch-perfect," declared King. "It was everything you could want" from the president at such a moment, Chalian said.
Thus was revealed, yet again, and surely not for the last time, the asymmetry of dealing with Trump when he manages to perform our national rituals of empathy, unity, and human decency — all the metapolitical aspects of our country's large-looming executive office.
It scarcely needs to be said that if the Vegas shooter had been a Muslim "loser," Trump would have eagerly leapt "in front of the news" to thump his chest. He would have taken to Twitter to renew his defense of the travel ban, remind of us the failings of our political correctness, call for us to be "tougher" and "smarter" about threats from abroad, and, time permitting, "appreciate the congrats" from his legion of internet fanboys.
Trump would have, in short, acted political.
Yet because Stephen Paddock was a 64-year-old white guy from Mesquite, Nevada, Trump was deprived of his chance to splutter and fume and self-congratulate. And, by extension, the likes of John King and David Chalian were forced to ignore the elephant in the room that was the killer's non-Muslim-ness. If they had mentioned any of the above, they would have violated their own decorous standards of political pause-taking in moments of national tragedy.
Were they right to do so?
I will grant that the CNNites' political ceasefire came from a commendable place. The dark corners of the web in the hours after the massacre were rife with embarrassing speculation that the shooting was a coordinated terror attack or possibly a #FalseFlag operation funded by George Soros. More benign but nonetheless irritating was Hillary Clinton's immediate connection of the tragedy to the debate over the legality of firearm suppressors. The urge to ignore mad conspiracy theories and delay political debates when bodies are not yet cold and hundreds are injured is a mark of decency.
But here's the thing: President Trump is not a decent human being. And it does CNN's viewers no good to pretend that he is, even for the good causes of providing solace to the grieving and encouragement to a nation shocked at the spectacle of mass murder.
It's a curious game of cat-and-mouse, of conveniently forgiving and forgetting. For instance, consider this dire assessment of Trump's humanity by CNN's own Chris Cillizza: "Trump's capacity for empathy is extremely low and, when he is required to reach out to people who he doesn't know or who don't support him, he is extremely uncomfortable and often simply unwilling to do it." This was after Trump's egregious response to the violence in Charlottesville this summer.
Yet on Monday morning, Cillizza was tut-tutting over Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy "unapologetically playing politics" in the immediate aftermath of the Vegas shooting. The ugly but obvious truth is that the circumstances of this latest mass shooting were politically useless to Trump — and so he declined to play politics. For that calculated reticence, Trump gets a wholly unearned pat on the head.
Have we not learned anything in the last nine months? Trump refuses to "grow" into his office. After every suggestion that he "became president" through some pantomimed display of normality, Trump reverts to his true odious self, quickly and predictably.
If CNN is uncomfortable telling its viewers this obvious truth, it should at least refrain from telling comforting untruths.