Whenever there's a significant tragedy somewhere in America, like a natural disaster, a major accident, or a terrorist attack, the president will ask himself, "What does the country need to hear right now? Does it need solace, hope, resolve? And what's the best way for me to provide what it needs?"
Or that was what previous presidents would say, anyway. It's safe to say that President Trump is not nearly reflective and thoughtful enough to ask himself those kinds of questions. His questions are more like, "Can I use this to get people angry and afraid? And can I throw in some xenophobia to punch it up a little?" Oh yes he can.
That's why, after a man plowed a truck into a bike path on a New York street, killing eight people and injuring many more, Trump knew what he wanted to say:
That was a horrible event, and we have to stop it, and we have to stop it cold. We also have to come up with punishment that's far quicker and far greater than the punishment these animals are getting now. They'll go through court for years. At the end they'll be — who knows what happens. We need quick justice and we need strong justice, much quicker and much stronger than we have right now. Because what we have right now is a joke and it's a laughingstock. And no wonder so much of this stuff takes place.
For the record, "so much of this stuff" doesn't take place, not here. According to the New America Foundation, since the Sept. 11 attacks 16 years ago, there have been 103 Americans killed here at home by jihadi terrorists, a figure that includes the attack in New York. That's fewer than six and a half deaths per year, an extraordinarily small number. And our criminal justice system is neither a "joke" nor a "laughingstock," unless you're talking about its racial inequities or its propensity to convict innocent people, which aren't particularly amusing. Nobody anywhere in the world views the American system as too lenient, to terrorism suspects or anyone else.
But what's most important in that response is the naked contempt Trump has for not just the Constitution but the very idea of constitutional protections and due process. It's not as though right now terrorists are being given light sentences — when Trump says "who knows what happens," in fact we know quite well what happens. We've prosecuted hundreds of terrorism cases in American courts, and generally speaking the perpetrators spend the rest of their lives in prison (even quite a few who never committed any actual acts of terrorism). So what "much quicker and much stronger" punishment is Trump hoping for? Summary executions? Torture?
Actually, that's probably exactly what he'd like. During the 2016 campaign he advocated torturing terror suspects and even murdering their families as a way of getting them to talk. Trump lies about many things, but on that he seemed completely sincere, as he is in his obvious hatred for immigrants, whether they're from Mexico ("Druggies, drug dealers, rapists, and killers are coming across the southern border") or Muslim countries ("They stay together. They're plotting").
As we've seen before, when there's a terrorist attack, President Trump's authoritarian tendencies come bursting out in full color. Like the dictators for whom he has expressed so much admiration, he finds the idea of legal procedures and constitutional protections to be nothing more than a frustrating impediment to the expeditious fulfillment of his bloodlust. If he could, he would sweep them away, so his brand of "quick justice" could be enacted while his anger still burns.
And of course, it isn't the violent death of Americans that leads him to want to cast aside anything resembling due process. It's only when there's a Muslim or an immigrant who committed the crime. When a middle-aged white man killed 58 people and injured over 500 more in Las Vegas, Trump didn't call for rounding up people with similar profiles, or doing away with trials, or depriving anyone of their rights in the attempt to stop the next mass shooter — let alone restricting the kind of weapons that make it so easy to kill so many. His response amounted to, That's terrible, but whaddya gonna do?
Trump is hardly alone in this; in fact, he offers merely a slightly more forthright expression of sentiments that have dominated his party for years. Both John McCain and Lindsey Graham said that the New York suspect should be designated an "enemy combatant" and held without any due process rights, despite the complete absence of any evidence that we get more information out of someone when we ship them to Guantanamo than when we move them through the civilian court system, which has an extraordinary record of success prosecuting terrorism suspects. Nor is there any reason to believe that this suspect is at the heart of some far-reaching conspiracy; from what we know so far, he seems like someone who was inspired by ISIS to undertake an act of murder using a simple technique requiring no specialized knowledge or training beyond the ability to rent a truck.
Underneath Trump's desire to respond to terrorism with "quicker" and "stronger" justice is the idea that unlike any of the other things that kill so many more of us — the 33,000 or so who die every year from gun violence, or the similar number who die in car accidents, to take just two examples — terrorism is uniquely threatening. No matter how rare it is and no matter how safe we may generally be from it, the very thought of it is so terrifying that the appropriate reaction to an attack is to wonder which parts of our democratic heritage we can put in the shredder.
Fortunately, the very system that Trump would dismantle is what prevents him from acting on his ugliest impulses, impulses that are shared by a distressingly large portion of the public and much (if not most) of his party. Or at least we can hope so.