In August of 2016, then-Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton condemned Donald Trump for “taking hate groups mainstream,” arguing that he would promote prejudice and paranoia if he were elected.
Three years later, the candidates vying for the 2020 nomination sounded similar themes — but with much blunter language — as they criticized his words and actions leading up to a racially motivated mass shooting in El Paso, Texas.
On his way from a vigil in his hometown, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke pulled no punches when a reporter asked if there was anything the president could do to make the situation better.
“What do you think? You know the shit he’s been saying. He’s been calling Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals. I don’t know, like, members of the press, what the fuck? Hold on a second. You know, I — it’s these questions that you know the answers to,” he said, according to a CNN transcript of the exchange. “I mean, connect the dots about what he’s been doing in this country. He’s not tolerating racism, he’s promoting racism. He’s not tolerating violence, he’s inciting racism and violence in this country. So, uhm, you know, I just— I don’t know what kind of question that is.”
O’Rourke’s frustration encapsulated what 2020 Democratic candidates have made their message with very little hedging — that the shootings were Trump’s fault. That there’s no question that the president has blame to shoulder for two shootings over the weekend within hours of each other. That it’s Trump who has made back-to-school shopping and a night out with friends in the heartland a risk.
By leaning so far into Trump’s culpability, the Democrats are betting that American voters will couple Trump’s previous comments that inflamed racial tensions with the brand of ideology espoused by the El Paso gunman. The gunman, for his part, tried to make clear that his white supremacy pre-dated Trump’s elevation to the White House, but he did little to conceal his mind meld with a President who once said there were “very fine people on both sides” of a protest in Charlottesville, Va., between white supremacists and those who believe such hatred has no place in the United States.
(Police in Dayton have not determined that shooter’s motive.)
Other candidates went the same route as O’Rourke. “Such a bullshit soup of ineffective words,” tweeted Sen. Cory Booker after Trump spoke from the White House. “Republicans need to get their shit together and stop pandering to the NRA,” tweeted Rep. Tim Ryan. And when Trump confused the city of Dayton for Toledo, Ryan added: “Toledo. Fck me.” (Former Vice Joe President Biden also confused the locations of the shootings on Sunday. Aides noted Biden’s remark was off-the-cuff and he quickly corrected himself.)
Others preferred to keep the talk centered on risk.
“Mr. President: stop your racist, hateful and anti-immigrant rhetoric. Your language creates a climate which emboldens violent extremists,” tweeted Sen. Bernie Sanders.
“There’s no question that white nationalism is condoned at the highest levels of our government,” South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg told Fox News on Sunday. “Right now, you see [the rhetoric] being echoed by the White House, and there is a measure of responsibility that you just can’t get away from when you have case after case of racial rhetoric coming out of the White House.”
“He has emboldened [white nationalism], he has given it power, he has elevated it, he has coddled it, and he’s got to stop,” Sen. Kamala Harris told MSNBC about Trump.
And while Sen. Elizabeth Warren has focused her messaging on the shootings around rallying Democrats to win back the Senate, she had plenty to say when CNN asked for her reaction on Trump: “Donald Trump says hate has no place in this country — Donald Trump has created plenty of space for hate. He is a racist. He has made one racist remark after another, he has put in place racist policies, and we’ve seen the consequences of it.”
By linking the president’s rhetoric with real-world safety, these candidates are taking the campaign out of Washington’s halls of power and relocating it to their everyday lives.
“Mr. President, immigration isn’t the problem. White nationalism is the problem. America’s inaction on gun safety legislation is the problem,” Biden, the Democratic frontrunner, tweeted on Monday. After Trump spoke, Biden followed-up with a tweet claiming hatred cannot be expelled from the White House until there is a new president.
And yet, there’s the sobering political reality that past shootings have not resulted in action from Washington. There was an immediate call to action after mass murders in Las Vegas, Orlando, Parkland, Sandy Hook. Nothing meaningful followed.
And even in his remarks at the White House, Trump stayed away from the most realistic proposal in response, a background-checks bill that is overwhelmingly popular across the political spectrum. Instead, the president blamed hatred, bigotry and violent video games.