Last night, we witnessed one of the most touching, thoughtful television events in quite some time. Usually, cable news is just an endless stream of vacuous platitudes which echo the thoughts and mannerisms of America’s political and financial elites, but Jake Tapper and CNN turned over the discourse to a bunch of kids, and it was far more comprehensive and intelligent than anything I have witnessed out of adults on TV in my lifetime. It served as something of a rebuke to Trump’s televised listening session earlier in the day.
The president sat down with survivors of mass shootings to listen to their stories. We’ll get into the substance of it shortly (and there was serious substance, just not on the president’s side), but anything this president does on TV is propaganda, because that’s the only kind of communication he understands. He’s invented alter egos like John Baron and John Miller to call up publicists to push gossip that paints him in a positive light. As soon as he arrived in the White House, he performed a State of the Union-style speech that was not the State of the Union. Everything and everyone is a tool to serve his ego. This man’s entire life has been filled with nothing but propaganda, so there is no doubt in my mind that his handlers wanted to get him in front of the cameras to portray a version of Trump that simply doesn’t exist. Anything this man does on TV should be viewed skeptically.
That’s not to say that the people speaking to him were complicit in Trump’s performative wokeness. Kids have advanced the gun debate to a point where there is no hiding anymore. If a politician wants to run from their complete and utter failure to protect our most vulnerable, their only choice is to hide in plain sight like Marco Rubio tried last night. However, the White House did have say over who could be in attendance, and the most vocal kids from Stoneman Douglas High School said they were not invited.
Those who were invited shared powerful stories of their loss. These three videos exemplified the tone and tenor of the session. People shared their heartbreak, and in turn, all of our hearts should shatter knowing that we live in a country that explicitly sanctions this kind of loss in order for gun manufacturers to make more blood money.
Under any other president, this session would be seen as a meaningful step towards real reform. But under this one who explicitly views the world as his to exploit? It was difficult to watch this discussion as anything more than the president surrounding himself with grief-stricken victims in order to paint himself in an empathetic light. I say this because his words did not match the level of pain in the room. His solution to curb gun violence was right in line with the NRA's endgame: flood America with more guns.
After his proposal to arm some teachers, Trump gave away the game on how he truly views this issue (and all others), unwittingly punctuating his point by saying (emphasis mine) “I think it could very well solve your problem.”
Not to mention, Trump's entire argument about arming teachers was premised on the idea that Stoneman Douglas is a gun-free zone—which is a central plank of the gun lobby's argument that we need more guns to fight the scourge of gun violence. This is simply wrong. There was an armed guard at Stoneman Douglas (and Pulse Nightclub, and Virginia Tech, and Columbine, and Washington Navy Yard, among many others). Plus, the practical impact of this proposal is asinine, as two combat veterans highlighted.
Plus, we don't give teachers enough funding for basic school supplies, and now we're going to open up a billion-dollar program to arm them? What kind of dystopian hellscape do we want to create for our children? Even if we just adopt the position of turning our schools into war zones and putting multiple armed guards in every school, some basic math reveals the staggering paramilitary force we would need to amass.
— There are about 90,000 schools in America.
— If we were to stick three armed guards in every school, paying them $10 per hour at 40 hours per week at 39 weeks per year (after taking into account school vacations), we would pay $4.2 billion for that service.
— The 270,000 armed guards in schools would have about 50,000 more members than the NYPD (which has a larger police force than 45 states), LAPD, the peak of our army's occupation of Iraq, and our current occupation in Afghanistan COMBINED. Just one armed guard in each school would still be about three times the size of the NYPD.
Remember the mass shooting at Fort Hood that killed 13 and wounded 30? That's an army base crawling with guns, and they couldn't stop a madman until it was too late. The only practical way to stop mass shootings is to ensure that guns don't get in the hands of people who shouldn't have them. Trump positioned himself like he endorses the widely held view of universal background checks (a Quinnipiac poll this week shows that 97% of Americans support them, adding the margin of error brings us to 100%), but in reality, he has only publicly come out in support of GOP Senator John Cornyn's bill that simply tweaks the existing system.
Sensing that he was losing the battle for hearts and minds, the president went on a rant this morning trying to redefine what he said in that video above.
He also must have been unnerved by the fact that so many highlighted the insane position of opposing universal background checks, and he used his rudimentary language skills to try a sleight of hand.
Comprehensive is not universal. Comprehensive is in the eye of the beholder, and given that he has only publicly come out in favor of the Cornyn bill, we can only assume that is what he means by “comprehensive.” Again, this entire thing was designed around Trump's ego. It was a TV show to him. If he was serious about this topic, he would have invited the activists from Stoneman Douglas who are leading the charge on real gun reform. Donald Trump is beholden to the NRA because they espouse the same crazy, besieged, white nationalist worldview he does. All of his allies in Congress are bought and paid for by the gun lobby, and he invited grieving mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters to share their stories so he could portray himself as sympathetic to their cause in front of the cameras. However, as soon as he opened his mouth, it was just more of the same general nonsense we have come to expect from Republican politicians. Perhaps no other image from this session exemplifies how Trump viewed it than the fact that he had to write a note for himself reminding to communicate that “I hear you.”
The problem for propagandists like Donald Trump, Marco Rubio and all the NRA’s other lackeys is that a new day has emerged. We witnessed a bunch of high school students grill lawmakers harder and more forcefully and eloquently than any journalist ever has on TV news. The old days of “I hear you” politics are over. Action is the only currency that exists for politicians now, and the “solution” of more guns to fight gun violence has officially fallen on deaf ears. Quinnipiac not only found that 97% of Americans want universal background checks, but also that 66%—the highest level of support they have ever measured—want stricter gun laws. Sixty seven percent want a nationwide ban on assault rifles. Just 3% say it is not too easy to buy a gun in America versus 67% who think it is. Public opinion has shifted dramatically against the NRA, and half-assed measures like the ones Trump proposed yesterday are immediately shot down in the court of public opinion.
Trump’s listening session was good in that he gave a real voice to the voiceless and frankly, did more to publicly highlight the opposition to gun violence than most presidents ever have. However, the man doesn’t have a single empathetic bone in his body, and as his unhinged tweetstorm this morning demonstrates, he viewed that listening session as an opportunity to burnish his credibility on this subject, instead of elevating grieving voices clamoring for change. Plus, the change he proposed is straight from the NRA handbook, proving that he did not intend to learn anything from that session. I would usually say that our president has the temperament of a child and demonstrated as such yesterday, but given that our greatest leaders on the topic of gun violence are children bemoaning the lack of any action by those older than them, I will now alter my critique to say that Trump is acting like the hopeless, self-absorbed adults who have come to define everything that is wrong with this country.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.