The debate over whether or not President Donald Trump encouraged the man who set out to slaughter Jews at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh really isn't a debate at all. It's a shouting match.
"Yes, he did!"
"No, he didn't!"
And it will likely only make things worse, as each side grows increasingly deaf to its own heated rhetoric and ever more furious at the other's.
Here's a better question: Is Mr.Trump helping?
The answer is obviously no — and that's bad enough.
Let us stipulate that the pro-Israel father of Ivanka Trump, who converted to Judaism when she married Jared Kushner, is not "literally Hitler." But let's also stipulate that there's something about Mr. Trump and his MAGA nationalism that's been, and remains, very attractive to bigots. This doesn't mean that everyone who jumped aboard the Trump train is a bigot. Far from it. But it is simply true that some who did are bigots, and Mr. Trump and his team have been dismayingly unconcerned about this fact.
I have some personal experience here. When the alt-right rallied to Mr. Trump starting in 2015, I was one of their targets. I was besieged with anti-Semitic filth. I ranked sixth on the Anti-Defamation League's list of targeted Jewish journalists. Once, when I mentioned that my brother had died, I was pelted with "jokes" asking if he'd been turned into soap or a lampshade.
While the attacks shocked me, I was more dismayed by how little many fellow conservatives seemed to care about the entire phenomenon. This was back when Steve Bannon — later the Trump campaign's CEO and eventually the president's senior adviser — still wanted Breitbart.com to be a "platform" for the alt-right.
The best defense of Mr. Trump at the time was ignorance and, ironically, bigotry — toward Republicans. A lifelong New York Democrat, Mr. Trump had no real understanding of what traditional conservatives and Republicans believed. In 2000, when he vied for the Reform Party's presidential nomination, he said he was trying to keep bigots from taking over the party. "He's obviously been having a love affair with Adolf Hitler," Mr. Trump said of opponent Patrick Buchanan. Mr. Trump's dream running mate: Oprah.
In 2016, after years of cultivating support for his birtherism, Mr. Trump still believed many of the liberal stereotypes of the GOP as a hothouse of bigotry. That's why he struggled to repudiate David Duke and let Mr. Putin's and the alt-right's racist troll armies fight in his name. Mr. Trump thought he needed them.
Mr. Trump is even more ignorant about how to be presidential. He's the first president who doesn't even know how to pretend to be a unifying figure, at least for longer than it takes to read a statement. Instead, he's enraptured by the rapture of his base, feeding them red meat, dog whistles and cultural wedge issues — anything to keep all of the attention, negative or positive, on him. He often says it would be "so easy to be presidential" but, as he said at a Pennsylvania rally in March, "you'd all be out of here right now, you'd be so bored." Why try to unify the country if the price is a little less applause and attention?
This dynamic has had a transformative effect on Mr. Trump, his base — and his opponents. Mr. Trump long resisted calling himself a "nationalist," fearing it was kooky Steve Bannon stuff. Now he embraces it, heedless of its implications to others not already on his team. The media has gone from being biased (it is), to being "fake" (it's not), to being the "enemy of the people" and tantamount to a fifth column.
Many in the Trumpified right-wing media amplify and reinforce all of this because they, too, are addicted to the same base.
Amidst the mail-bomb scare last week Mr. Trump tweeted about how unfair it is that CNN can criticize him “yet when I criticize them they go wild and scream, ‘it's just not Presidential!’” The false equivalence is lost on him and on his biggest defenders. CNN isn't the president. It’s in a different lane. And while some of its coverage is worthy of criticism, it isn’t — or shouldn't be — a warrant for Mr. Trump to leave his lane.
I don't think Mr. Trump deliberately encouraged the slaughter in Pittsburgh. But every day he fuels a sense of chaos, a feeling that none of the norms or rules apply anymore. And that is bad enough. It certainly isn't helping. The president is supposed to at least try.