Comment and analysis - Black Lives Matter: protests prompt President Trump to unleash his inner authoritarian

Michael Goldhaber, IBA US CorrespondentThursday 18 June 2020

Pic: Black Lives Matter Protests at Black Lives Matter Plaza, Washington D.C. near the White House, 13 June 2020. Silvercloud

In 1968, after the race riots of the civil rights era tore America apart, the Kerner Commission concluded that ‘abrasive policing tactics’ only escalate violence. The 21-year-old Donald Trump instead absorbed the lesson drawn by the segregationist presidential candidate George Wallace: ‘When the looting starts, the shooting starts.’

Trump’s violent antipathy to protest goes well beyond looters. After 1989’s Tiananmen massacre of pro-democracy students, the opinionated playboy told Playboy that China ‘almost blew it’ by acting with restraint. ‘Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength.’

‘The first thing’ Trump did as President, according to the Minneapolis police union head Bob Kroll, was take the ‘handcuffs’ off cops. (Kroll should know, having been investigated for misconduct 29 times himself.) The Department of Justice (DoJ) defunded police reform, and stopped seeking court supervision for violent agencies. The Pentagon resumed the unlimited domestic supply of combat weapons. In a 2017 speech, the President beseeched officers not to protect a suspect’s head as they shove him into a squad car: ‘Please don’t be too nice… okay?’

The police in the audience guffawed at the President’s call for brutality. Some officers nationwide acted on it without consequence – until the fateful killing of George Floyd, on Memorial Day 2020 in Minneapolis. The aptly-named Officer Chauvin wasn’t too nice for nine minutes on the neck of a black man who (unlike the pre-Trump police) was truly handcuffed.

Racial protests began spreading to more than 350 United States cities, mixed with sporadic but intense looting and anti-police violence. The President set the tone on 28 May by calling the culprits ‘THUGS’. (A racially charged term, ‘thugs’ ironically derives from an Indian gang that favoured murder by strangulation.) Then the President fuelled the fire with George Wallace’s foolish rhyme: ‘[W]hen the looting starts, the shooting starts,’ In an overdue first, Twitter flagged his tweet as glorifying violence.

As protests reached the White House the next night, the President hid in his bunker. Reportedly, the President felt humiliated to appear weak. Over the next three days, he overcompensated historically.

Echoing his commentary on Tiananmen, he twice tweeted ‘STRENGTH!’ Channelling Richard Nixon’s 1968 slogan, he compulsively tweeted, ‘LAW & ORDER!’ In a throwback to racist police chiefs, he threatened to set ‘vicious dogs’ on any protester who stormed the White House.

Recklessly, he issued a thinly-veiled call for a counter-protest by the toughs who frequent ‘Make America Great Again’ rallies: ‘Tonight, I understand, is MAGA NIGHT AT THE WHITE HOUSE???’ This appeal fell on deaf ears in DC, where the President won a minuscule 4% of the vote. But if he ever issues such a battle cry in friendlier terrain, he might trigger street brawls, or even shootouts. Why not? He likes his gang’s chances. As he fantasised last year: ‘I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump–I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough—until they go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad.’

After his evening in the bunker, the President obsessively blamed the riots on ‘Antifascist’ elements, while insisting that his supporters were only the finest people. ‘It’s ANTIFA and the Radical Left,’ he tweeted. ‘Don’t lay the blame on others!’ In the next week the President tweeted on Antifa 10 more times, and promised to ‘designat[e] ANTIFA as a Terrorist Organization.’ (This is doubly impossible, because Antifa isn’t a group, and domestic groups are protected by the First Amendment.) Defending the nationalist fringe, the President tweeted: ‘I don’t see any indication that there were any white suprem[acist] groups mixing in.’

In truth, experts say both far-left and far-right agitators are in the mix, but to what extent is unclear; and peaceful protesters are overwhelmingly, increasingly dominant. The day after the President exonerated white supremacists, Twitter suspended the account of a right-wing group for fomenting violence while posing as Antifa, and Facebook soon followed suit. Facebook and Instagram have also removed scores of right-wing posts about infiltrating the protests.

Naturally, the President is agitated by the mainstream media’s acknowledgment that police brutality and peaceful protest are widespread, and that the far right is capable of causing mischief. He regards the mainstream media’s disproportionate coverage of violent riots as vastly insufficient. The exposure of his own ridiculousness by television news is intolerable. To demonise the press, the President took to Twitter 11 times in the next week – and made generous use of psychological projection. ‘The Lamestream Media is doing everything within their power to foment hatred,’ he thumbed. ‘They are “truly bad people with a sick agenda”.’ In possibly related news, the US Press Freedom Tracker counts over 300 instances of law enforcement assaulting, arresting or harassing journalists during the protests.

The President’s allies call the protesters terrorists, because it gives them a licence to shoot. ‘Now that we clearly see Antifa as terrorists,’ thumbed Florida congressman Matt Gaetz, ‘can we hunt them down like we do those in the Middle East?’ Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton concurred: [L]et’s see how tough these Antifa terrorists are when they’re facing off with the 101st Airborne Division…. And, if necessary, the 10th Mountain, 82nd Airborne, 1st Cav, 3rd Infantry….’

‘[U]sing the unlimited power of our Military’ is the President’s instinct too. In an unhinged 1 June phone call, he exhorted America’s governors to take ‘retribution’ on the ‘terrorists’ and ‘scum.’ The President mocked the governors as weak. ‘You have to dominate,’ he told them.

Addressing the nation that evening, the President urged the governors to ‘dominate the streets’ with ‘all available federal resources civilian and military’ – or else he would do it for them. The President professed that his goal was to protect Americans’ rights – with a weird emphasis on the right to bear arms. He gave a nod to the right of peaceable assembly too. But as he spoke, federal agents were smashing peaceful protests beside the White House with chemical riot control agents, smoke, and flash bang grenades. All this to clear way for the President to strut down the street, pull a bible out of his daughter’s $1,500 handbag, and glower on camera as he held the bible upside down in front of a church.

The governors blessedly ignored the President’s demand that they unloose the military on America’s cities. Current and former brass voiced crucial discomfort with the President’s threat to mobilise the military against the governors’ wishes. ‘American cities,’ declared former chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen, ‘are not “battle spaces” to be dominated.’ But because the District of Columbia is not a state, the Trump administration was able to directly control the protest response in DC – and use the district as a showcase for domination.

The US Army stationed between one and two thousand troops on the city’s outskirts, but held them back under pressure from the Pentagon. Meanwhile, 5,000 National Guard soldiers patrolled the streets of DC, backed by combat helicopters – in one instance swooping low over protesters in a dangerous ‘show of force.’ Joining the National Guard were 3,000 civil law enforcement agents from across the federal government. The Attorney-General himself headed this secretive policing force, although few were part of the DoJ. They came from places like the Federal Bureau of Prisons riot unit, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the US Park Police, Homeland Security Investigations, US Customs and Border Protection, and the Secret Service. In a touch Vladimir Putin would appreciate, many wore uniforms without insignia, and refused to identify themselves.

The President gave himself a pat on the back. ‘D.C. had no problems last night,’ he thumbed on 2 June. ‘Overwhelming force. Domination…. (thank you President Trump!).’

The President is reaching for 1968 because ‘Law and order’ secured Nixon’s victory. But the ‘silent majority’ against protest, claimed by both Presidents, is now a minority. Partly that’s because authoritarian values have declined (despite a recent uptick). Partly it’s because the ubiquity of smartphones with video cameras has made police brutality visible for all to see. According to a Monmouth University poll, over three fourths of Americans now agree that racism is a big problem, and that today’s protests are to some degree justified. Fifty-seven per cent of Americans say the protests are wholly justified. In 1968 Trump drew the wrong lesson. In 2020 he’s out of step with the march of history.