Trump Thought Brutalizing Protesters Would Save Him. He Was Wrong.

His gamble on creating a militarized culture war has done the opposite of what he hoped for.

It seems almost inane to remark on an electoral horse race at such a historic time. Why should we care about Donald Trump’s electoral chances when energized citizens across America are braving injury and arrest to confront white supremacy and police violence? But it’s important nonetheless.

That’s because while these problems have been centuries in the making from slavery to Jim Crow to Ferguson and beyond, Donald Trump’s particular failings as a person and a candidate are fanning the flames of the crisis. Rather than help be a part of the solution, he is intentionally exacerbating the tensions–not only because he himself is a racist whose politics of authoritarian white grievance align with the same forces driving police violence itself, but because he is desperate and in grave political peril.

This isn’t news: he has been for some time. He has consistently trailed all the leading Democratic contenders in national polling since the beginning of the primary campaign—not just nationally, but also in the swing states he needs in the electoral college. If he loses in November he and his defenders will claim he was on a pathway to victory before external forces derailed him, but this would be wrong. Even when the economy was strong, which normally bodes very well for first-term presidents’ odds at winning another four years, much of the persuadable public simply found itself so exhausted by Trump’s ongoing campaign against public decency that they were ready to vote for an alternative who did not take active measures to offend people on a daily basis.

Matters worsened for him when COVID-19 hit the United States and exposed him not just as a divisive buffoon, but a cynically incompetent one. The Administration delayed its response, worried that any action they took would hurt the stock market and erode Trump’s last remaining electoral strength. But even as the job losses mounted into the tens of millions as the nation rushed to try to contain an already widespread pandemic, the President personally promoted miracle quack cures like hydroxychloroquine and demonstrated his unbridled personal buffoonery by wondering aloud about the possibility of drinking bleach and injecting sunlight as a method of curing oneself of coronavirus.

Even before the brutal killing of George Floyd by officers of the Minneapolis Police Department, Trump knew that he would need to maximize his culture war appeal to non-college whites to make up ground lost to the faltering economy. There can be little doubt that Trump saw opportunity in the protests that followed to dust off the Nixon playbook, vowing to restore “law and order” in a country furious that the law seemed to protect only some, while enforcing a brutal order on others. If Trump’s actions threatened to turn the culture war into an active shooting war, that would just be collateral damage on the road to his political recovery.

The Trump orbit considers the iconography of jingoistic militarism and the violent suppression of protest to be a political winner. Consider, for instance, Rudy Giuliani’s bizarre 9/11 tribute tweet promoting a video that featured riot police, the military, and high school football squaring off against young protesters replete with counterculture stereotypes, including flag-burners, anti-police sentiment and even men with long hair (how dare they.)

Trump, like Nixon before him, uses “law and order” as a way of “talking about race without talking about race.” In this narrative, a president who supports American “traditional culture” and stands strong against people who agitate for racial justice will win over a “silent majority” of people who just don’t want to be disturbed and want to have some peace and quiet from their politics.

In this context, the killing of George Floyd was not a crisis, but an opportunity.

A president with an ounce of self-respect, dignity and compassion would have done her best to understand the anguish and grief facing the black community as yet another black person was killed needlessly and with zero remorse by a police force accustomed to no accountability. A president who made a semblance of caring about the country as a whole would have made at least a show of sympathy. Trump could not do even this.

This is, first and foremost, because Trump is the same man who published a full-page ad recommending the execution of the innocent Central Park 5, and has refused to apologize for or even retract his position. He is the same man who, as president, implemented a policy of separating immigrant children from their parents to lock them in cages without blankets or toothpaste, as an explicit deterrent to other potential (nonwhite, of course) immigrants seeking a better life. As Adam Serwer unforgettably said, the cruelty is the point.

Trump enjoys and encourages state brutality against people of color, and black people in particular. It excites him and his most ardent followers. But his response isn’t just based on personal predilections. It’s also based on political considerations. Trump sees shades of a 1968-style law-and-order culture campaign that can carry him to re-election when literally nothing else can. 

Any normal president would have made an Oval Office address to the nation as soon as major protests began. Trump, despite his braggadoccio, showed characteristic cowardice and indecision for days, choosing to post inflammatory tweets while hiding in a White House bunker. When he finally did make a public address, it was little more the chest-puffing false bravado of a petty tyrant.

He has encouraged governors to use extreme force against protesters, using “antifa” and a small minority of looters and criminals as an excuse. In a tweet that was flagged with a warning by Twitter for its glorifcation of violence, he used a phrase that harkened back to the segregation era to threaten lethal force against protests. He has repeatedly threatened to use the military to suppress dissent.  He has rebuffed the calls of Mayor Muriel Bowser of the District of Columbia to demilitarize the response to the protests, and has vowed to replace the troops she refuses with forces beyond her control. He has turned the District of Columbia, a plurality black city, into a militarized zone with non-uniformed secret police, and  the White House as a closed-off fortress in its center.

Across the country, police have intentionally targeted journalists, leaving many with disfiguring injuries. Can there be any doubt that this unprecedented violence against the press was spurred on by Trump’s endless war with any media that holds him accountable? Given that Trump received the support of 84 percent of America’s police officers, how could it be otherwise?

And most egregiously, in what will surely be viewed as one of the most ill-advised stunts in presidential history, the Trump Administration had federal security forces use tear gas and projectiles to vacate Lafayette square by force of arms so Trump could make a show of walking over to St. John’s Church and posing awkwardly with a bible held upside down.

The message that Trump wanted to send with this stunt is not hard to decipher. It cast him as the warrior of white evangelical Christianity, waging a holy crusade by force of arms against those who would oppose it as the dominant force in American electoral politics.

Trump will fail, however, because neither the bastions of white culture nor the nation’s security apparatus are on his side this time. No matter what Trump did previously, the elements that represented these conservative institutional bastions would not condemn him. But Trump’s effort to use the military as both a political and kinetic weapon against Americans exercising their constitutional rights has caused the people who should be his allies to turn against him. It earned him stinging, humiliating rebukes from respected military leaders such as four-star Marine Corps General and former Secretary of Defense James Mattis. Conservative columnist George Will has called for the removal of Trump and the Congressional leaders who enable him. This despicable act even earned him condemnation from televangelist Pat Robertson, one his bedrock supporters in the white Christian evangelical movement.

Meanwhile, people of all races across America have watched in horror as police continue to commit violent acts of brutality against the people who are legally and peacefully protesting police brutality. Statistically speaking, white people have historically not believed that institutional racism in the police force is an issue worth their attention. Now, for the first time, a majority of whites do, and Americans of all races are overwhelmingly supportive of the protests against the killing of George Floyd. If Trump was planning on dividing Americans by race and cleaving more whites to his side, the plan is backfiring. Trump even seems to have a reverse Midas touch in recent polling on these issues: while Americans were broadly supportive of using the military to quell the civil disturbances at first, Trump’s embrace of the tactic seems to have helped drive those numbers into negative territory in just a few days.

In one sense, he’s right: people are exhausted with chaos, and they do want a respect for law and order. The problem for Trump? The chaos is in large part of his own making, and insofar as it isn’t, he’s in the way of solving the problems created by institutional racism and overlapping hierarchies of oppression. The massive wave of police brutality has woken even many previously disengaged white people up to the need for true equality under the law, and an order in which everyone, including police and the president, are held to account. And many of the same people Trump is trying to persuade now believe that kicking him out of the White House is a necessary prerequisite for making that vision a reality.

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David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.

Dante Atkins

Dante Atkins is a former Hill staffer and current progressive communications consultant. Originally from Los Angeles, he resides in Washington, DC.