WASHINGTON – During his campaign, Donald Trump often bragged about his skill as a negotiator.
In conversations, he ventured that, as president, he might be able to resolve two of the most thorny and tragic dilemmas: finding peace in the Mideast and reaching a sensible compromise on guns.
He said he would hop in his limo and go to NRA headquarters in suburban Virginia and stay as long as it took to make a deal, noting that there were points where both sides in the debate could agree.
Even if Trump once had some negotiating aptitude – his biographers say it was rare – we have seen his art-of-the-deal aspirations evaporate in a cloud of self-absorption, as one tableau of legislative chaos after another unfolds.
Trump wrote in his 2000 book, “The America We Deserve,” that he was in favor of a ban on assault weapons and “a slightly longer waiting period to purchase a gun.” But then the NRA spent more than $30 million to get him elected. All his earlier moderate positions withered as he slavishly followed the money and applause from the basest of his base.
“You came through big for me and I am going to come through for you,” he told the NRA after his election, out-Hestoning Charlton Heston.
After 49 people were killed in a shooting at an Orlando nightclub in June 2016, he suggested that it would have been “a beautiful, beautiful sight” if more people in the club had been armed and went “boom” at the “maniac” shooting at them.
It was too hard-line even for the NRA.
“I don’t think you should have firearms where people are drinking,” NRA chief Wayne LaPierre demurred.
The Orlando shooting also provided confirmation that the emotionally stunted Trump would not be a parental healer for the country, when he tweeted congratulations to himself for predicting the shooter would have links to terrorism, rather than offering comforting words to the grieving families and friends, and to shaken Americans.
Last year, weeks after taking office, Trump signed a bill rolling back a regulation that made it harder for mentally ill people to buy guns. And a day after Wednesday’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida, by a mentally disturbed teenager with an AR-15 who killed 14 kids and three adults trying to protect the students, the president seemed unable even to utter the word “gun.” (This, even as his favorite newspaper, Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post, blared the headline: “MR. PRESIDENT, PLEASE ACT.”)
I started covering gun control back in 1989 when the first Bush administration banned imports of most semi-automatic rifles and skepticism was growing about the NRA’s mantra that anyone should be able to buy anything with a trigger.
In an interview at NRA headquarters – which proudly displayed a model of the pistol used to assassinate Lincoln – LaPierre explained that AK semi-automatics were just uglier hunting guns and that he knew how to hunker down during periods of “hysteria” after shootings.
I wrote about the heartbreaking funerals after the 2012 massacre of Sandy Hook Elementary’s “beautiful babies,” as Joe Biden called them. I profiled Chris Murphy, the estimable junior senator from Connecticut who suddenly found himself facing down the Republican NRA puppets in Congress. And I wrote in disgust about President Barack Obama failing to marshal the L.B.J. mojo to push through a gun control bill after Sandy Hook even though he had 90 percent of Americans on his side and a Democratic Senate.
Then I gave up. If the sight of slaughtered angels did not dent the nation’s conscience, could anything? We knew that other countries could stem mass killings, homicides and suicides with gun control and gun buybacks. But we didn’t care.
In our ongoing angst about our national identity – if we weren’t John Wayne anymore, who were we? – there had been a terrible tacit judgment made: America would accept periodic human sacrifices to the trigger gods in the interest of upholding this bizarre notion that the Second Amendment is inviolate or even really threatened. We can’t even summon the energy to break the chokehold that the NRA has on Republicans in Congress.
Since Newtown, there have been more than 1,600 mass shootings. Each time, the outrage seems to fade faster.
When societies try to protect a malevolent status quo, they become warped. The most chilling sign of this is when people look the other way as the most vulnerable members of society are preyed on.
It happened with the Catholic Church, where priests caught preying on children were protected and recirculated to new parishes, where they could continue their crimes. The community shrugged. The children were collateral damage.
It happened with Hollywood, when everyone knew about Harvey Weinstein’s predations yet let lovely young women, at that moment of gardenia-fragility when they thought the macher could make their dreams come true, walk into his sulfurous quarters. The community shrugged. The young women were collateral damage.
Now children in this country go to school every day knowing that they are not safe, that a crazed predator could show up at any moment with an assault rifle and cut them down. America shrugs. Our children are collateral damage.
The #MeToo movement has proved that spider webs of protection for predators can be ripped apart in an instant, that unspeakable things that have been tolerated for decades can suddenly be deemed intolerable.
America is in the throes of great disruptions and anxieties, as we sort out our values and our future. But it doesn’t take any soul searching to know this: Treating children as collateral damage is intolerable.