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Suppressing Fire

How the Right Turns Every Mass Shooting Into a Mass Distraction

Conservatives are using identity politics in the wake of the California killings to divert attention from a universal fact: All of these tragedies are fueled by the easy access to guns.

Brandon Bell/Getty Images
Donald Trump Jr.

Was Saturday’s mass shooting at a dance studio in Monterey Park, California, which left 11 people dead, under-covered by an uninterested media? From a historical perspective, mass shootings now occur with such frequency in the United States that they tend to fade from view with a rapidity that’s alarming in hindsight—and too often, the reason is that coverage of one mass-casualty event gets displaced by coverage of a second, following hard upon. That’s what happened in this instance, in fact: On Monday, another gunman killed seven more people up the California coast in Half Moon Bay. The fact that both shootings have stayed in the news is something of an anomaly—in this case, because of similarities between the gunmen, who were both Asian American senior citizens.

Naturally, Donald Trump Jr. has his own theory. “You think you’d hear a lot more about the mass shooting of 10 people in California,” he tweeted on Monday. “But don’t worry you won’t hear anything about it because it wasn’t done by a white conservative man with an assault rifle. Doesn’t work for the narrative so it basically never happened!”

Trump Jr.’s observation was factually wrong in a basic way. Regardless of whether the Monterey Park shooting received the coverage it would have three decades ago, the blunt fact of the matter is that it wasn’t in any way under-covered: The shooting garnered significant attention on cable news; the story led The New York Times and The Washington Post for most of Sunday and Monday. It was neither suppressed nor memory-holed: Mainstream outlets have treated it with the level of attention it merited—which is to say that it has been the biggest story of the week thus far.

But you needn’t concern your self with whether Trump Jr. has a well-fortified media diet. He was trying to make another deeply cynical point beyond media criticism: that liberals don’t actually care about mass shootings—they merely see them as a means of punishing conservatives. To Trump Jr.’s mind, when gun violence doesn’t fit the liberal agenda—a popular notion on the right when it comes to crime in cities like New York and Philadelphia—it’s ignored. This approach was also on display in right-leaning media outlets, which seized upon statements from Democratic politicians such as Adam Schiff and Chuck Schumer, which speculated that the attacks could have been racially motivated. While this was a reasonable assumption given the uptick of violence against Asians in recent years, these lawmakers might have been wiser not to air such notions before the facts were clear. Here, the right weaponized these Democrats’ idle natterings as further proof that they didn’t sincerely care about the attacks. The only mass shootings that matter, in this formulation, are the ones that fit the preconceived notions the right promulgates about violence. You can see why this would be so important to them, given the well-documented rise in violence within the American right.

Scratch the surface of this rhetoric, and the callous cynicism that these conservative luminaries are injecting into the news cycle becomes fairly apparent. Along the way, you’ll see a more calculated, ideological cant come to the surface. Liberals aren’t actually making distinctions between shooters based upon identity politics. Their focus is on the too-ready availability of guns themselves. This, to the right, is anathema, and so they fill the scene with squid ink: fantastic notions of a media blackout alongside vague calls for mental health measures—never publicly funded, naturally—and the inescapable litany of thoughts and prayers. It’s worth noting that Trump Jr.’s only tweet about the shooting was the one lambasting Democrats for not paying attention. But Trump will have another tweet lambasting them when they demonstrate that they are.

Are Democrats the ones picking through human remains, hefting each tragedy by weight and volume in their hands to determine which provide maximal political points and which should be downplayed? It seems fairly obvious that Democrats do push gun control in the wake of these mass shootings. John Fetterman, for instance, became the latest senator to sponsor a (doomed) bill to ban assault weapons on Tuesday, in response to this weekend’s mayhem. Democrats haven’t had much legislative success in curbing mass shootings, but they do tend to see policy and legislation as a means of reducing the uniquely American phenomenon of mass shootings.

The right, by contrast, treats these events as a purely political meta-event: They’ll rake Democrats over the coals when they “politicize” mass shootings or, when they feel the wind blowing in a different direction, accuse them of being diffident bystanders to violence. But that’s all there is in terms of word and deeds, mourning and reflection, with no push for action.

In this demented frame, the search for solutions, the calling-out of bigotry, and the acknowledgment of chilling rise of political violence are all unacceptable. There is never any attempt to consider what should be done or, for that matter, to observe the right’s own efforts to politicize tragedies they see as beneficial to a preferred narrative that seeks to drive the public in the direction of hating the people who are trying to put an end to gun violence more than the shooters themselves. Trump Jr.’s tweet is particularly rich in that it revels in the lack of attention these events receive now, a direct result of their numbing frequency. But that is precisely the problem. The media moves on faster than it used to; the public is exhausted by the sheer magnitude of mass death. That too is a tragedy.