On April 4th, 1968, Bobby Kennedy was set to give a speech in Indianapolis, to a largely black crowd, most of whom had not yet heard that Martin Luther King, Jr. was gunned down earlier that evening, shattering the last dreams of peace. If you listen to the speech, you can hear the shock and anger and despair billowing through the crowd as he breaks the news. He goes on the speak of love and anger, of violence and forgiveness. To quote him that night:
For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust at the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I can only say that I feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man. But we have to make an effort in the United States, we have to make an effort to understand, to go beyond these rather difficult times.
My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He wrote: “In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black.
And now Trump, last night, in nearby Westfield, to a crowd that was, I am assuming, not mostly black.
“The other night you had 11 cities potentially in a blow-up stage,” he said. “Marches all over the United States—and tough marches. Anger. Hatred. Hatred! Started by a maniac! And some people ask for a moment of silence for him. For the killer!”
There’s a lot going on there. Look at how he conflates the Black Lives Matter marches, post-Dallas, with the killed. They were “started by a maniac”. This is more than just saying that BLM should stop all activity in the face of the slaughter, as if injustice went away. That’s a common tactic. He’s not even saying that Micah Johnson was inspired by BLM: he’s saying BLM was further inspired by him.
That’s dangerous. Just as dangerous is his entirely bullshit claim that some people asked for a moment of silence for the killer. As TPM explains, this wasn’t even the only time he said it that day. He mentioned it to O’Reilly as well.
“It’s getting more and more obvious and it’s very sad, very sad,” Trump went on. “When somebody called for a moment of silence to this maniac that shot the five police, you just see what’s going on. It’s a very, very sad situation.”
So this isn’t an accident. TPM said “There were no media reports about anyone calling for a moment of silence for gunman Micah Johnson, though groups from Congress to the New York Stock Exchange held moments of silence for the victims of last Thursday’s mass shooting. Searches on social media for people making such calls also came up short.”
Now, maybe someone somewhere said something that only Trump was privy to, but even so, why bring this up? What purpose does this serve except to further stoke white anger and the law-and-order backlash? It seems likely that it is made up, like his “thousands of Muslims” celebrating 9/11, and it is cut from that same cloth. It is meant to stir up racial hatred and anger, and he knows that facts won’t matter. It’s a lie that can be repeated. And if someone dredges up some dark corner of the internet or some random tweet that makes it seem almost plausible, well, all the better for him. If they can’t, no big deal. It’s already out there.
There is no way to overestimate how dangerous this kind of rhetoric is. It’s not even a dog whistle. It’s pure division (while of course decrying division). It’s absolute race-mongering, and would make George Wallace proud. It’s appealing to the darkest heart of America. It’s jamming a knife in a suppurating wound, just to see what will happen.
You can’t get further away from Bobby Kennedy, and not just due to Kennedy’s eloquence and Trump’s monosyllabic turnip-truck pratter. (“Aeschylus? Good poet. Not great. Not classy.”) One man speaks to the best of America hoping to be worthy of it. The other speaks to the worst, hoping to drag us down daily into his despair, hoping to forever lost wisdom under the vengeful eye of a graceless god.