As the world looked on in horror at the fire at Notre Dame de Paris this last Monday, a shocking, needless repercussion was felt here in the U.S., delivered by none other than our President.
Having earlier suggested that authorities use aircraft to water-bomb the ancient, fragile cathedral, Trump seized the opportunity, at a rally in Minneapolis styled as a “tax roundtable,” to announce that Notre Dame was on fire, and was “burning to the ground.” The gasps of the crowd, many of whom were learning of the tragedy for the first time, were audible, because anyone hearing Trump’s words would naturally envision a structure burned to its foundations, one of the great monuments of civilization reduced to smoking rubble.
It was a small thing, perhaps, this offhand remark, and yet it was as revealing as a long-winded speech. It was untrue and unfounded, but so many of Trump’s pronouncements fall into that category. What made this particular remark so striking is that it was so carelessly, casually cruel.
For the event was ongoing; it was possible that what he said might come to pass. Most leaders worthy of the label lean toward optimism, rally against tragedy, push back against our fears and worst imaginings. Where any president in recent memory would have expressed sympathy and support and left the reportage to others, this creature of the media could not conceal the relish with which he became the bearer of falsely awful news. What we have is a President whose first instinct in the face of tragedy is not to comfort and uplift, but to dramatize, to wrest attention from the loss of others and refocus it on himself.
The man never met a hyperbole he didn’t like. The crowds at his inauguration were the largest in history, his net worth so much more than experts think, his buildings are the greatest, his walls the biggest, his exonerations from wrongdoing always complete and absolute. And so it must be with calamity; in his mind, from his mouth, Notre Dame can’t just catch fire, it must burn to the ground.
It can be dismissed as mere childishness, a kind of perpetual immaturity too often forgiven in grown men. We all know a few children who would be as good at his current job as Trump, and would likely have more coherent policy views. But we surely didn’t mean to elect one, as children can be thoughtless, and selfish, and cruel.
It’s the cruelty in Trump’s telling of the tragedy in Paris that chills; the lack of empathy, the quick embrace of the worst possible outcome, the nihilism that governs his expectations of life.
The fire is out, the great cathedral walls and towers intact. But in our once optimistic, hopeful country, Notre Dame is burning to the ground.