Friday, at a rally in Bemidji, Minnesota, President Donald Trump told his audience a story about the MSNBC journalist Ali Velshi. “I remember this guy Velshi,” the president said (he pronounced it “Welshy”):
He got hit on the knee with a canister of tear gas. And he went down. He didn’t—heeee was down. ‘My knee! My knee!’ [Crowd laughs] Nobody cared, these guys didn’t care. They moved him aside. [Crowd laughs.] And they just walked right through—it was like, it was the most beautiful thing. No, because after we take all that crap for weeks and weeks, they would take this crap. And then you finally see men get up there and [punches fist forward] go right through, did—wasn’t it really a beautiful sight? [Crowd cheers.]
It’s called law and order. Law and order!
This was nowhere near the most important news of the evening, as word came that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had died and reporters began speculating about whether Trump and the Republican Senate majority would force through the appointment of a replacement justice with less than seven weeks to go till Election Day. The president’s remarks celebrating police violence against a reporter, to the delight of a laughing and hooting crowd, were just one more thing the president said. The president says so many things!
Because Velshi was in the middle of reporting from Minneapolis when the police attacked him and his crew, the incident the president was talking about was recorded on camera and broadcast on television, and it is available to watch. It was during the unrest in Minnesota in May, after the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.
None of it happened the way the president described: The police had showed up on the scene and begun firing tear gas, unprovoked, at the protesters and reporters there. Velshi himself was hit with a rubber bullet, not a gas canister. (He and his crew had been gassed, but not hit with canisters, earlier in the segment.) In the video, he never says “My knee! My knee!”; he says “Oh, shit!” when the bullet hits him, and then “All right , guys, I got hit. Yeah, I got hit. Hold on.” He does not fall down but limps over to the curb and then leans against a car. The police do not move him aside but remain down the block, where they fired from, as MSNBC cuts away to another reporter in a different part of the protest scene.
What the president offered, and the president’s crowd cheered for, was a punched-up, fictionalized version of events: a helpless, whimpering reporter pushed aside by bold, aggressive police action. The actual, desultory brutality of it wasn’t enough. Trump had to lie about it, to give the crowd a story of police whose ruthlessness they could admire, and a reporter they could despise. That was what they’d come for. That’s what he gives them.
Demagoguery sounds mystical and potent in history lessons, but witnessing it at work in the present, what’s most terrifying is how babyish and inane it is, and how the babyish inanity is what makes it work. The compact between Trump and his political movement is nothing more than the compact between a mediocre shock comedian and his willing audience: an agreement that he will bring everyone down to his level, and they will all enjoy themselves down there, and fuck anybody if they can’t take a joke.
Trump is down in the polls against Joe Biden in Minnesota. He is trailing nearly everywhere he would need to win if he is going to win the Electoral College again. No one anywhere predicts he will win the popular vote, or even come close. Saturday, he went on to Fayetteville, North Carolina and told the people there again about how the police had swept through Minneapolis, and how they’d hit the reporter.* He told the crowd that the press was “the enemy of the people,” as he’s been telling his crowds all along. The death toll from the coronavirus in the United States had just hit 200,000. The president talks about the election as a conspiracy to steal his rightful power away from him; he settles his fears and rouses his audience with fantasies of violence, and they all laugh about it. These are the everyday conditions of political life in America. What is there to call it, except what it is?
Correction, Sept. 20, 2020: This post originally misstated that Trump held a rally in Fayetteville, Arkansas, on Saturday. It was in Fayetteville, North Carolina.