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Trump tries to draw a crooked line

I recently came across an essay in the New York Times Sunday magazine by Steve Almond. He wrote, “In the beginning was the word, and the word was uttered by a storyteller. His myths and histories offered a unified version of (among other things) our origins, the codes by which we should live and our moral fate. Eventually these stories were preserved, duplicated and made portable as written works. The teller was supplanted by the writer, who, in an effort to bridge the gap between him and his audience, deployed a figure called the narrator. As literature sought to reckon with the growing complexity of human affairs, writers relied on this figure more and more.” Narrators “draw back to offer lengthy disquisitions that yield broader insights into human nature. They are able to portray how individual fates collide with history (they) don’t just awaken readers’ sympathies; they enlarge our moral imaginations. They offer a sweeping depiction of the world that helps us clarify our role in it.”

Almond’s paragraph gave me pause, especially when he wrote that former president Obama conceded that he had “failed to tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism.” In other words, he wished he had been a better narrator.

I began to think about what it means to our nation to have a chronically unreliable narrator as our president, one whose mendacity knows no bounds and thereby creates with his words and policies a constant sense of chaos and vertigo. Imagine arriving at that place where nothing, absolutely nothing, that he says can be believed.

Consider the aftermath of the recent shootings in Dayton and El Paso when Trump stated he was committed to “meaningful” background checks to include the closing of loopholes. And, of course, there would be the red flagging of the mentally ill. It was a promise made to a country in the agonizing grip of a familiar grief.

But once again, as days passed, a week, then two, the urgency faded, and Trump explained, absent a shred of chagrin, that the U.S. already has “very, very strong background checks” for gun purchases. But his administration would, of course, look closely at mental illness. That was the real issue. Certainly it wasn’t the gun. It was the demented shooter who needs to be found before he obtains that signature assault weapon.

But in truth, the linkage by Trump of mental illness to mass shootings is, at best, a crooked line, cynically drawn, amounting to rhetoric that plays for time as the memories fade. Richard A. Friedman, professor of clinical psychiatry and director of the psychopharmacology clinic at West Cornell Medical College, recently wrote in a New York Times op-ed, “President Trump declared that mass killers are ‘mentally ill monsters.’ It was a convenient — and misleading — explanation that diverted public attention from a darker possibility behind such unimaginable horror: The killer might have been rational, just filled with hate.”

Friedman goes on to refer to a large study of 350 mass killers, of whom “only 20 percent had a psychotic illness; the other 80 percent had no diagnosable mental illness.” Friedman goes on to say that “you don’t need to have a mental illness to be a monster.”

Gradually, America is becoming aware of the presence of white nationalists within our borders, fueled by hate and paranoia of “the other,” as was the El Paso shooter, who targeted Latinos specifically. Monsters have always been with us. Once on the fringe. Now in the mainstream.

The president’s rationale for retreating from his promise regarding background checks mirrors that of the National Rifle Association, including the familiar “slippery slope” mantra proffered when discussing gun control. The president said he was worried that “all of a sudden everything gets taken away.” Ah, yes, that dark and surreal fantasy that government will arrive one day to confiscate all the guns in America. And so the crooked line continues.

Chris Honoré is an Ashland Tidings columnist.