Trump Cannot Deescalate

Monday night was his first stab at it. He proved the protesters’ point.

Trump speaking from the Rose Garden on Monday.
Donald Trump delivers remarks in front of the media in the Rose Garden of the White House on Monday. Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

“The spilling of innocent blood is an offense to humanity and a crime against God,” Donald Trump breathily intoned on Monday in that sing-songy tone he sometimes affects when he’s groping for statesmanship. He said this immediately after law enforcement had—on White House orders, and on television—tear-gassed, clubbed, and thrown flash bangs at innocent protesters peacefully exercising their First Amendment rights. The contrast between the action and the speech was Trump in a nutshell. “I am your president of law and order and an ally of all peaceful protesters,” he crowed, minutes after Americans had watched the show Trump and his puppet, Attorney General William Barr, had prepared for them as a sample of the violence he has planned for the nation. There was an ecstatic quality to Trump’s threat to “deploy the national guard in sufficient numbers that we dominate the streets.” Trump—who praised China’s “power of strength” for its handling of Tiananmen Square, and who wanted tanks on the Mall for his Fourth of July celebration last year—might finally get his wish: an occupied America that crushes anyone who’s mean to him or his supporters (which include the police) under his heel.

Monday night was his first stab at it. The country is roiling with anger and grief at clear proof that out-of-control police are attacking, abusing, and executing unresisting black men and women. This is likely a radicalizing moment for many white Americans too, who are finally seeing firsthand what contact with an unrestrained police force really looks like. In the midst of this, Trump’s strategy was to send law enforcement officers to rain blows down on peaceful protesters and news outlets with no warning. (Park Police are now trying to deny aspects of this—one source claimed no tear gas was used despite video footage posted by journalists showing it and firsthand testimony from clergy.) And so it happened: Americans already horrified by scene after scene of out-of-control police attacking people and arresting journalists even while they’re broadcasting watched as Americans’ rights to free speech and freedom of the press were openly violated by the president.

It’s worth noting that it was less than a week ago that Trump complained that Twitter, by appending a label to his tweet clarifying that it contained misinformation, was “completely stifling FREE SPEECH.” And yet now, police seem to be attacking obviously compliant journalists and protesters on camera, clearly unconcerned that they’re being filmed even during a nationwide crisis over their misconduct. This suggests a force so entirely convinced of its impunity that it no longer feels the need to conceal wrongdoing. Americans, and indeed the world, have now been treated to footage of a cameraman and reporter for an Australian news station, for example, being savagely beaten by federal police on live TV.

It was a distressing spectacle. Even as we all know how Trump is—vindictive, delicate, a basket of ego wounds salved by the applause he gets for abusing others—what was concerning on Monday was how this manifested. There was none of the normal whining. On Monday, Trump seemed utterly enthralled by the glories of presidential power. “As we speak, I am dispatching thousands and thousands of heavily armed soldiers, military personnel, and law enforcement offices to stop the rioting, looting, vandalism assaults and the wanton destruction of property,” he said. Nowhere in this fanatical dispatch, which used words like “safety” and “security” as euphemisms for the military invasion of American cities, did Trump address the terrible and obvious root cause of American unrest: extreme brutality on the part of law enforcement. Trump can only escalate.

To cause more police brutality in the midst of a protest against police brutality is perfectly consistent with Trump’s actions in power. Trump defaults to white innocence and black guilt. He told cops not to be “too nice” in 2017 and pardoned Sheriff Joe Arpaio—one of the more abusive monsters in the carceral system, famous for torturing the people in his care. He advocated for the Central Park Five to remain incarcerated despite their proven innocence. Of course he’s expanding America’s two-tier system of policing. A right-winger’s fever dream of carte-blanche permissiveness, Trump has clarified that there will be no limits at all on what his supporters can do in public spaces—invade government buildings armed to the teeth, scream at police, defy local government, attack fellow citizens—while openly and gleefully bludgeoning opponents who protest peacefully.

It’s dull work, pointing out Trumpian double standards. But it must be done when a so-called president is easing his wounded ego with autocratic fantasies he has both the power and inclination to execute. Monday, Trump confirmed with tear gas what he has already amply proved: Trump does not believe Americans he doesn’t like should have free speech. His administration has retaliated against whistleblowers and witnesses who testified to his failed extortion scheme with Ukraine, violating their First Amendment rights. Colin Kaepernick might express some surprise at Trump calling himself an “ally of peaceful protesters,” since Trump made it his objective to annihilate Colin Kaepernick’s career because he dared to peacefully protest police violence. Not content to rest there, Trump pressured the NFL to force players to stand during the national anthem and fine them if they didn’t; that’s how much he wanted to punish black men determined to draw attention to a cause most Americans back then didn’t understand as a problem. That’s how badly he wanted to signal to police that he was on their side. Trump did everything he could to run interference for abusive cops and deafen his supporters to Kaepernick’s message about police abuse—a message that might, if heeded, have produced police reforms that could have saved George Floyd’s life. Trump’s track record on this is clear: He could ignore peaceful liberal marches because they produced no visible change, but there is no form of effective protest he will tolerate without lashing out in defensive savagery.

Black people are being killed by police who are not held accountable. That is the issue. Trump will try to muddy it just as he distorted Kaepernick’s message, which he repeatedly mischaracterized as protesting “the flag” or “the military.” And Trump will call for justice for George Floyd, as he did Monday, while perpetuating, on television, the culture of criminal abuse that led to his death. People are being abused and killed by police who are never held accountable. That is the issue. There are two justice systems. That is the issue. Black citizens get extrajudicially killed for selling loose cigarettes or paying with a forged $20 bill while murderous officers at the very worst get fired from one department so they can be hired by another. That is the issue. Faced with a nation literally on fire over this monstrous and undeniable injustice that the nation refuses to solve, Trump opted to reenact, on camera, the two-tier system that produced it.

There will be no reconciliation in America, Trump has decided. He demonstrated on television that there should be two sets of laws, one for his enemies and one for those who agree with him. When thuggish Trump supporters armed to the teeth invaded government buildings because (as some explained) they were tired of not being able to buy garden supplies and get haircuts, Trump cheered them on. When Americans turned out to protest the killing of George Floyd, Trump called them “THUGS.” “The Governor of Michigan should give a little, and put out the fire,” Trump wrote about his supporters’ armed protests. “These are very good people, but they are angry. They want their lives back again, safely! See them, talk to them, make a deal.” These are good people, but grieving Americans demanding that police stop killing their countrymen are, in Trump’s discourse, sinister, “organized,” and “terrorists.” These differences are stark and they are now acquiring lethal definition: In Trump’s America, only Trump supporters get to protest. He wants two laws. He relishes having two standards.

“One law,” Trump said on Monday as he threatened governors and mayors with military intervention if they aren’t violent enough, “we have one beautiful law.”

But the American people have woken up to the fact that no matter what the president says, the reality is that there are two sets of laws that different Americans have been living under already, and plenty of Americans are witnessing that in real time now. Reporting on the ground on Tuesday night suggests that some people are coming out to protest specifically because of what they saw on Monday night. No nation with its dignity intact would, could, or should retreat after so flagrant an abuse of power. So they won’t. This is the awful truth about Trump’s combination of pettiness and power: Absurd as Trump is, knowable as his flaws are, ridiculous and grim as that little walk to the front of St. John’s Church turned out to be in practice, the effects of these dominance exercises are deadly. This is not a game. The awful likelihood—now that the president has taken a side against the people—is that American people and American police will die. It’s a tragedy. There is only one direction things can go in now.

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