Witcover: Will the midterm elections be a turning point?

The attempted mail bombings last week and the slaughter of 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue over the weekend have occurred at a time when American voters have an opportunity to say what they think of the ugly and destructive turn of events.

Next week's midterm elections have become a referendum on the presidency of Donald Trump and his divisive words and policies. The collective result can determine whether moral leadership can return to the Oval Office.

That is not to say that the president is personally responsible for the deeds of the deranged perpetrators. But his incendiary encouragement of violent actions by some of his political followers has surely contributed to the ugly and disruptive tone in the country today.

Voting next Tuesday against continued Republican control of one or both houses of Congress is a circuitous route to express that sentiment. But it is a clear-cut way to demonstrate rejection of GOP congressional acquiescence toward Mr. Trump's strategy of rule by division.

The president has cited the violence as an unfortunate interruption in his midterm campaign to continue his reign of fear and vitriol, igniting the worst in racial and religious bigotry among some of his political faithful.

He has dismissed the mailings as "bomb stuff" and as a possible "false flag" invented by the Democrats, though FBI Director Christopher Wray has declared that the bombs were no hoax.

Following the synagogue murders, Mr. Trump went to Pittsburgh on Tuesday to convey his condolences, despite a local Jewish community group on Monday releasing a letter signed by thousands telling him he was unwelcome and to stop "targeting" minorities. Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto urged him not to come, at least not "while we are burying the dead."

The letter went on: "For the past three years, your words and your policies have emboldened a growing white nationalist movement. You personally called the murderer evil, but yesterday's violence is the direct culmination of your influence."

It is not surprising that Mr. Trump would blame Democrats for being responsible for what has occurred while continuing to wage war on the press as "the enemy of the people."

Talk of possible impeachment of the sitting president is in the air, as the Robert Mueller investigation into Russian election meddling and now int Mr. Trump's business affairs appears to be reaching a climax.

Yet more cautious Democrats are treading lightly on that track and have preferred to base their midterm campaigns on what they see as the Republican threat to the nation's safety net protecting Social Security, Medicare and payments for patients' pre-existing conditions under Obamacare.

As for Mr. Trump, he said at an Illinois campaign rally Saturday night that "the scourge of anti-Semitism cannot be ignored, cannot be tolerated and cannot be allowed to continue." But soon thereafter, in the face of calls that he tone down his rhetoric, he said he might well tone it up, adding his view that having an armed guard in the synagogue could have averted the tragedy.

Via Twitter, the president also resumed his assault on the mainstream news media, declaring: "The Fake News is doing everything in their power to blame Republicans, Conservatives and me for the division and hatred that has been going on for so long in our Country."

But William Kristol, founder of conservative opinion magazine The Weekly Standard, observed that "the idea that Trump and conservatives share no blame for scaremongering on immigrants and the [Central American] refugees is ridiculous."

Vice President Mike Pence rushed to Mr. Trump's defense, saying, "Everyone has their own style, and frankly, people on both sides of the aisle use strong language about our political differences. But I just don't think you can connect it to acts or threats of violence."

Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, disagreed. "No one sets the tone more than the president of the United States," Schiff said in a CNN interview. "There's no escaping the tone that he sets."

And so it goes. As the heat and focus heighten and the midterm voting approaches, the nation is split down the middle in terms of party and sense of responsibility for the anger and hostility that reigns over its politics.

We may be at a fork in the road in these elections. Will they determine whether America starts to return to its image as a beacon of hope for the oppressed seeking political freedom, opportunity and spiritual renewal? Or will we take the Trump detour of division and rancor that further tarnishes our national ideals and purpose?

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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