Residents in majority-Hispanic El Paso yesterday told US President Donald Trump to stay away amid fury over his anti-immigration rhetoric as he struggles to unite the country in the wake of mass shootings that killed 31 people.
Trump is scheduled to travel today to the Texan border city where 22 died in a weekend gun massacre, before heading around 2,400km northeast and to Dayton, Ohio where a second gunman shot nine dead hours later.
The president called on Americans in a nationwide address Monday to condemn bigotry but community leaders say his words rang hollow set against a longstanding refusal to call out white supremacy and a history of provocative tweets widely condemned as racist.
“This president, who helped create the hatred that made Saturday’s tragedy possible, should not come to El Paso,” tweeted Beto O’Rourke, a Democratic presidential hopeful and former congressman who grew up in the city.
“We do not need more division. We need to heal. He has no place here.”
Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley meanwhile said she would meet Trump and tell him “how unhelpful he’s being. His comments weren’t helpful on guns.”
Before striking at a Walmart superstore in El Paso, the 21-year-old suspected gunman, who is white and from the Dallas area, reportedly posted an online manifesto railing against a “Hispanic invasion of Texas.”
Critics pointed out that the language echoed much of Trump’s rhetoric on Twitter and at rallies, where he has frequently framed Hispanic migrants as part of an “invasion.”
Trump has also characterised Mexicans and Central Americans as criminals, gang members and rapists and described the communities of African American lawmakers on several occasions as “infested” with crime and filth.
Congresswoman Veronica Escobar, whose district includes the area targeted by the El Paso gunman, urged Trump “to consider the fact that his words and his actions have played a role in this.”
“From my perspective, he is not welcome here,” Escobar told MSNBC. “He should not come here while we are in mourning.”
El Paso mayor Dee Margo, announcing the visit, stressed that he was welcoming the president because it was his duty to do so.
Presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway accused Democrats of politicising a moment of acute pain while Trump was trying to “bring the country together, heal a nation.”
She was backed by the chairman of the El Paso County Republican Party, Adolpho Telles, who defended Trump’s visit but told CNN he needs to be more careful about his language.
In his nationwide address, Trump spoke out against racism but blamed mental illness, video games and the Internet for fuelling gun violence, sidestepping the fact that other countries with these issues do not have mass shootings.
He had nothing substantial to say about gun control measures, drawing expressions of disappointment from those hoping for a healing moment.
“He mentioned gun issues one time,” said Whaley, the Dayton mayor.
“I think, watching the president over the past few years on the issue of guns…I don’t know if he knows what he believes, frankly,” she said.
Residents in El Paso, unimpressed by Trump’s tightly scripted appeal for unity, told AFP they were fearful of a rise in white nationalism and said the president was part of the problem.
“I do blame our president. Since the moment he got into office the rhetoric, the hate that he’s got towards people that are just different colour skin, he has no right,” said Silvia Rios.
The president began yesterday apparently irritated by veiled criticism from former president Barack Obama, who warned US leaders against divisive rhetoric.
“We should soundly reject language coming out of the mouths of any of our leaders that feeds a climate of fear and hatred or normalises racist sentiments,” said Obama, who has only rarely spoken out on public affairs since leaving office in 2017.
In response Trump retweeted a quote from an anchor on Fox News who said it was inappropriate for a former president to criticise a successor over a shooting.
“President Obama had 32 mass shootings during his reign. Not many people said Obama is out of control,” read the quote from Brian Kilmeade.
Legislation to overhaul gun control under Obama failed in 2013 when the Republican-controlled Senate rejected a ban of assault-style weapons and expanding background checks.
He told the BBC two years later gun control was “the one area where I feel that I’ve been most frustrated and most stymied.”