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Shootings Spur Debate on Extremism and Guns, With Trump on Defense

The politics of American gun violence follow a predictable pattern in most cases: outraged calls for action from the left, somber gestures of sympathy from the right, a subdued presidential statement delivered from a prepared text — and then, in a matter of days or even hours, a national turning of the page to other matters.

But after a white supremacist gunman massacred 22 people in El Paso, the political world hurtled on Monday toward a more expansive, and potentially more turbulent, confrontation over racist extremism. Though the gun lobby was again on the defensive, it was not alone; so were social media companies and websites like 8chan that have become hives for toxic fantasies and violent ideas that have increasingly leaked into real life, with fatal consequences.

Perhaps most of all, President Trump faced intense new criticism and scrutiny for the plain echoes of his own rhetoric in the El Paso gunman’s anti-immigrant manifesto.

Mr. Trump’s usual methods of deflection sputtered on Monday: His early-morning tweets attacking the news media and calling vaguely for new background checks on gun purchasers did little to ease the political pressure. A midmorning statement he recited from the White House — condemning “white supremacy” and warning of internet-fueled extremism, but declining to address his own past language or call for stern new gun regulations — did nothing to quiet the chorus of censure from Mr. Trump’s political opponents and critics, who are demanding presidential accountability.

No moment better captured how the gun violence debate was giving way to a reckoning on extremism than a statement on Monday afternoon from former President Barack Obama. Mr. Obama, who has weighed in sparingly on public events since leaving office, called both for gun control and for an emphatic national rejection of racism and the people who stoke it.

“We should soundly reject language coming out of the mouths of any of our leaders that feeds a climate of fear and hatred or normalizes racist sentiments,” Mr. Obama wrote, “leaders who demonize those who don’t look like us, or suggest that other people, including immigrants, threaten our way of life, or refer to other people as subhuman, or imply that America belongs to just one certain type of people.”

Mr. Obama did not mention Mr. Trump or any other leaders by name.

The Democrats seeking the presidency in 2020 did not hesitate to do so: Mr. Trump had scarcely finished speaking from the White House on Monday when his Democratic challengers blamed him explicitly for giving succor to extremists. Joseph R. Biden Jr., the former vice president and current Democratic front-runner, accused Mr. Trump on Twitter of having used the presidency “to encourage and embolden white supremacy.” And in an interview with CNN, Mr. Biden said Mr. Trump had “just flat abandoned the theory that we are one people.”

Other political leaders reacted with their own raw distress and alarm. Michael R. Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor who has bankrolled a yearslong crusade for gun control, wrote in a column that the “new atrocities need to change the political dynamic” around guns, and said Mr. Trump’s remarks were little more than “the usual dodge.”

And Democratic presidential candidates rounded on Mr. Trump in a front that transcended ideological and tonal divisions in the party. Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, a populist liberal, said Mr. Trump must be held responsible for “amplifying these deadly ideologies,” while Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, who has campaigned as an advocate for racial justice and national healing, derided Mr. Trump’s speech as a “bullshit soup of ineffective words” in a text message that his campaign manager posted on Twitter.

An aide to Mr. Booker said he would deliver a major speech on gun violence on Wednesday morning in South Carolina, at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston where a white supremacist gunman killed nine people in 2015.

And the entwined issues of gun violence and racist extremism began to tumble into elections for offices well beyond the presidency. In Colorado, Mike Johnston, a former state lawmaker and gun-control advocate who is challenging Senator Cory Gardner, a Republican, blamed Mr. Trump for having “created this toxic culture that incites white nationalists.” In 2020, he said, candidates would have to make a stark binary choice.

“Either you’re on the side of the white nationalist holding the AR-15, or you’re on the side of the millions of Americans living in fear of them,” Mr. Johnston said in an interview.

Mr. Trump, for his part, said he was open to “bipartisan solutions” that would address gun violence, and blamed “the internet and social media” for spreading what he termed “sinister ideologies.” He was not specific about any next steps his administration would take, though he stressed his strong support for the death penalty and seemed to express skepticism that gun restrictions would be an appropriate remedy.

“Mental illness and hatred pulls the trigger, not the gun,” Mr. Trump said.

Mr. Trump’s campaign responded to criticism of the president with a statement deploring Democrats for “politicizing a moment of national grief.”

“The president clearly condemned racism, bigotry and white supremacy as he has repeatedly,” said Tim Murtaugh, a spokesman for Mr. Trump’s campaign. “He also called for concrete steps to prevent such violent attacks in the future.”

Mr. Murtaugh added that “no one blamed Bernie Sanders” when one of his supporters attempted to kill a group of Republican lawmakers at a Virginia baseball diamond in 2017. “The responsibility for such horrific attacks,” he said, “lies ultimately with the people who carry them out.”

If Mr. Trump and his allies are adamant that he is blameless in the rise of extremist violence, much of the public believes he has not adequately separated himself from white supremacists. A survey published in March by the Pew Research Center found that a majority of Americans — 56 percent — said Mr. Trump had done “too little to distance himself from white nationalist groups.” That group included about a quarter of people who identified themselves as Republicans or as leaning toward Mr. Trump’s party.

It has not only been liberals who have argued that the mass shooting in El Paso, and another one hours later in Dayton, Ohio, represented a crisis for the country, and a major test for Mr. Trump. The conservative magazine National Review published an editorial on Sunday evening calling on Americans and their government to take on “a murderous and resurgent ideology — white supremacy” in much the same way the government has confronted Islamic terrorism.

Mr. Trump, the magazine said, “should take the time to condemn these actions repeatedly and unambiguously, in both general and specific terms.”

Frank Keating, the former Republican governor of Oklahoma, who led his state through the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City by domestic terrorists, said in an interview that the moment called for both new restrictions on firearms and a new tone from the White House. He urged Mr. Trump to “carefully choose your words” to avoid instilling fear or inciting anger.

“He needs to realize the lethality of his rhetoric,” Mr. Keating said.

“The truth is, the president is the secular pope,” he added, “and he needs to be a moral leader as well as a government leader, and to say that this must not occur again — exclamation mark.”

It was not clear whether the El Paso shooting had the potential to become a pivot point in national politics, much as the Oklahoma City bombing had in the 1990s. After that attack, which killed 168 people, President Bill Clinton delivered a searing speech against the “loud and angry voices in America today whose sole goal seems to be to try to keep some people as paranoid as possible” — a denunciation widely understood as being aimed at the extreme right. Mr. Clinton’s handling of the attack helped restore voters’ confidence in him as a strong leader after a shaky start to his presidency.

Mr. Trump has shown no inclination in the past to play a role of such clarifying moral leadership, or to engage in any kind of searching introspection about his own embrace of the politics of anger and racial division. In the aftermath of a white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017 that resulted in the murder of a young woman, Mr. Trump said there had been “very fine people on both sides” of the unrest there. In recent weeks, he has engaged without apology in a sequence of attacks on prominent members of racial minority groups, including five different Democratic members of Congress.

While few Republican lawmakers had anything critical to say about Mr. Trump in public after the El Paso and Dayton shootings, the party harbors profound private anxieties about the impact of his conduct on the 2020 elections. During last year’s midterm elections, Mr. Trump campaigned insistently on a slashing message about illegal immigration, and was rewarded with a sweeping rejection of his party across the country’s diverse cities and prosperous suburbs.

Punctuating the final weeks of the 2018 elections were a pair of traumatic events that may have deepened voters’ feelings of dismay about the president’s violent language and appeals to racism: a failed wave of attempted bombings by a Trump supporter aimed at the president’s critics, and a mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, carried out by a gunman who had railed about immigrant “invaders.”

Mr. Trump responded to the Pittsburgh massacre in a tone similar to the one he used on Monday, lamenting the “terrible, terrible thing, what’s going on with hate in our country,” before taking up his caustic message again on the campaign trail. He paid no price for that approach with his largely rural and white political base, which has remained fiercely supportive of his administration through all manner of adversity, error and scandal.

In the Democratic presidential race, the weekend of bloodshed had the effect of muting, at least temporarily, the divisions in the party that were showcased in last week’s debates. The outbreak of solidarity may not last, but it underscored how much the 2020 campaign is likely to take shape in reaction to Mr. Trump’s worldview and behavior.

Even as they aired their disagreements last week, some Democrats appeared to recognize that political reality. In fact, on the morning after his party’s back-to-back debates concluded, Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington State predicted to a reporter in Detroit that his party would have little difficulty rallying together in the 2020 election.

“We’ve got the most unifying gravitational force, outside of a black hole,” Mr. Inslee remarked, “and that’s a white nationalist in the White House.”

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