The BBC’s flagship news and current affairs programme wasn’t in any doubt about who to blame for America’s latest bout of mass shootings. Newsnight’s report began with footage of Donald Trump addressing the faithful at a rally. ‘This is an invasion,’ he warned, referring to the refugees massing on the Mexican border. ‘When you see these caravans starting out with 20,000 people, that’s an invasion.’ It then cut to Emily Maitlis in the studio. ‘That was in May,’ she said. ‘Today, Donald Trump called on Americans to condemn racism, bigotry and white supremacy.’ She added that the President had made these remarks ‘with a straight face’ and ‘with autocue precision’ — completely insincere, in other words – and then pointed out that he had not suggested any new measures for gun control. She concluded: ‘So how much should we align presidential words and terrorist acts?
How should America react to a man many blame for amplifying extremism in the first place?’
Those are good questions and it’s a pity Newsnight didn’t take them seriously. There are plenty of reasons not to blame Trump for last weekend’s slaughter. For one thing, the El Paso gunman railed against climate change alongside Hispanic immigration in the manifesto he published before murdering 22 people, and the President is a climate change sceptic, as liberals never tire of pointing out. For another, the Dayton shooter, who murdered nine, was a self-described ‘leftist’ who praised Elizabeth Warren and Antifa, the far-left protest group. Incidentally, the terrorist who charged an ICE detention centre with homemade bombs and a rifle last month was a member of Antifa and referred to his target as a ‘concentration camp’, echoing the words of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Democratic Congresswoman. Yet Newsnight didn’t ask whether the ‘inflammatory rhetoric’ of Warren or Ocasio-Cortez ‘inspired’ these nutjobs. No, it bought into the line peddled by Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke — and countless others — that all mass killings that have taken place on Trump’s watch have been by ‘white supremacists’.
O’Rourke described Trump as ‘stoking racism’ and claimed there’d been a rise in hate crimes in every year of his presidency. We hear similar claims about the effect of the Leave victory in the EU referendum, but hate crime data is notoriously unreliable. O’Rourke is referring to the number of reported hate crimes, which isn’t a robust measure because various American agencies have spent millions encouraging people to report hate crimes and making it easier to do so. To see whether the overall level has increased you need to look at whether unreported hate crimes have gone up or down in the same period. That exercise was carried out by the Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2018 which found that while reported hate crimes increased from 104,400 to 107,900 between 2016 and 2017, unreported hate crimes fell from 92,100 to 86,900, meaning the total number actually fell in the first year of Trump’s presidency.
If you look at the past ten years, the total level of hate crime is declining in the US, as is the amount of racism and anti-immigration sentiment, and Trump’s victory has done nothing to reverse that. Sociologists at the University of Pennsylvania published a study this year showing that Americans have become less inclined to express racist views since 2016, something true of Republican voters as well as Democrats, and a Gallup poll in June 2019 found 76 per cent of Americans believe immigration is a good thing, the highest number to date. The same trends are visible in the UK: the population has become less racist and more pro-immigration since the Brexit vote. The liberal narrative about the toxic effect of the rise of far-right populism turns out to be nonsense.
It’s incredibly hard to show that inflammatory rhetoric, whether on the right or the left, causes violent crime. All we know for sure is that violent crime across the world is declining, something painstakingly documented by Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature. For various reasons, most people have difficulty believing that and seize on incidents like those of last weekend as ‘proof’ that we’re living in an increasingly murderous age. That’s particularly true of left-wing pundits and politicians, who really should know better, given their elite educations. Trump may be a coarse, mean-spirited figure, but he’s not responsible for these tragedies.