Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today: Trump’s listening sessions with the families of mass-shooting victims, the meaning of Mueller’s latest indictments, and lessons of Black Panther’s box-office success.
The White House hosted families from Parkland, Newtown, and Columbine for an emotional “listening session” with President Trump Wednesday afternoon, and will have another one with law enforcement officials today. Is this a signal that Trump may be genuinely interested in gun control — or is he just trying to saving face after his disappointing response last week?
By unleashing a wave of student anger and activism, the slaughter in Parkland may be shaking up the intractable American gun debate. But make no mistake about Trump: However much “listening” he purports to do, he will do absolutely nothing to remedy the epidemic of violence that is literally and figuratively consuming the country. Trump, who was endorsed by the NRA even before he won the presidential nomination and then benefited from $30 million of NRA campaign spending, is even now giving the gun lobby still more of what it paid for. Yesterday he called for more guns, not fewer, in schools, and he reiterated this nostrum with this incredible tweet this morning: “If a potential ‘sicko shooter’ knows that a school has a large number of very weapons talented teachers (and others) who will be instantly shooting, the sicko will NEVER attack that school. Cowards won’t go there…problem solved.” Let us repeat this: Problem solved!
As Trump won’t cross the NRA — he saluted Wayne LaPierre and his colleagues as “Great American Patriots” in another tweet today — so he won’t cross his base on this issue any more than he did on immigration. His sympathetic noises about the victims of gun violence are as empty as his repeated claims that he sympathized with Dreamers and wanted to help them. But the hopeful news post-Parkland — tentatively hopeful, needless to say — is that the enraged student protesters are for the moment frightening Trump and the other NRA pawns of the GOP. That’s why Trump held his “listening” session. That’s why Florida state legislators exited through side doors when students stormed the state capitol in Tallahassee yesterday. That’s why Florida’s governor, Rick Scott, was a no-show at the town hall on guns broadcast by CNN last night. That’s why internet trolls are spewing out videos and tweets — some of them endorsed by Donald Trump Jr. — sliming the most outspoken Parkland students as frauds and plants. That’s why that great moralist Bill O’Reilly — remember him? — blamed the media for ginning up public sentiment for gun control by showcasing Parkland teenagers “in an emotional state.” These teenagers are scaring the Second Amendment zealots as adult gun reformers rarely have.
If the students don’t retreat, if their ranks expand, and if they follow through on their pledge to organize and vote, they may actually get some of the results that have eluded gun-control advocates for decades. But they will be up against daunting obstacles. Those obstacles include not only the NRA, Trump and his base, and nearly every Republican officeholder, but also supposedly “adult” conservatives who give cover to the gun lobby by calling for patience and moderation. Such voices have been out in force since the Parkland bloodbath. In the Times, Ross Douthat called for “a moral bridge between the civic vision of the Second Amendment advocates and the insights of their critics.” (This gives new meaning to “the bridge to nowhere.”) David Brooks echoed by recommending this proven dead end as the way forward to reform: “It’s necessary to let people from Red America lead the way, and to show respect to gun owners at all points.” At The Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan attributed the gun-violence epidemic to the internet, porn, video games, “violent entertainment culture,” and of course “the abortion regime.” Her legislative solution: “Trade banning assault weapons for banning late-term abortion.” Problem solved! This is the same kind of thinking that prompted John Kelly — once thought of as a supposed moderate in Trump’s inner circle — to argue that “the lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War.”
Compromise is not going to end the rising wave of mass murder in America any more than it ended slavery. With all our focus on the mental illness of crazed killers like Nikolas Cruz and Stephen Paddock, we tend to lose sight that it’s another sign of mental illness that American political leaders and their apologists do nothing while the country literally destroys itself with gun violence.
Trump responded to Mueller’s indictment laying out Russian election interference last week with a weekend tweetstorm that the Washington Post described as “unhinged,” and which included profanity, misspellings, and basic factual errors. What does this meltdown say about his ability to weather Mueller’s revelations going forward?
Mueller’s indictment of 13 Russians made it clearer than ever that Trump will not weather the results of this investigation, and that the cost of firing Mueller now would be more politically catastrophic than ever. It’s revelatory that Trump didn’t initially figure this out. He originally and delusionally hailed the indictment as a vindication. He might still be doing so had Parkland not intervened. The gravity of the shooting forced him for appearances’ sake to forsake golf at Mar-a-Lago over the weekend and instead cower indoors binge-watching cable TV and letting loose with his insane tweetstorm. Clearly those around him hadn’t had the guts to tell him how devastating the news of Mueller’s indictment was for him and those around him, including his son and son-in-law, so cable talking heads did so instead.
If you read the indictment, it’s clear that Mueller’s team knows in granular detail virtually everything that went on during the 2016 election, and is steadily laying out the criminality one step at a time. Trump defenders who keep saying there’s no there there now have to see (whether they acknowledge it or not) that there was a huge there there: what even Trump’s national security adviser H. R. McMaster felt compelled to describe as “incontrovertible” evidence of the Russian effort to sabotage American democracy at its heart, the ballot box. By proving that crime, the indictment lays the groundwork for charging those who attempted to obstruct the investigation of the crime. Meanwhile, Mueller keeps dealing out new cards, including a reported plea deal for Paul Manafort’s deputy Rick Gates and a reported investigation of a Chicago banker who may have been promised a White House job by Manafort in exchange for $16 million in loans. Manafort may soon have to decide whether he wants to spend the rest of his life in prison or start squealing on Trump. Still to come: the fruits of Mueller’s investigation into the Russian hacking of Clinton and DNC emails.
Another thing Trump may have belatedly figured out while gorging on Big Macs in front of his flat screen over the weekend: When his lawyer Ty Cobb last year told him that Mueller would wrap up his investigation by Thanksgiving, he meant Thanksgiving 2018.
Black Panther crushed box-office records in its opening weekend, taking in more then $400 million in global ticket sales. Will its success knock down the Hollywood myth that stories anchored in black culture, or with mostly black casts, can’t find global audiences?
Money is the only language that talks in Hollywood, and one would hope that the unassailable success of Black Panther will galvanize more industry bets on black filmmakers and the stories they want to tell. What’s more, Black Panther, though undoubtedly the kind of “violent entertainment culture” that Peggy Noonan would blame for school shootings, is an imaginative and uncompromising story of African-American empowerment, achieved not through sermonizing but within the transporting mythology of Marvel. Still, there have been so many articles celebrating the film as a commercial and cultural milestone that one wants to add a word of caution: It wasn’t that long ago that an even bigger victory in the mass marketplace, Barack Obama’s election as president, was seen as a breakthrough ushering in a post-racial America. When it comes to intransigent American conflicts — whether over race or guns — we have to be careful not to let hope blind us to the battles still ahead.