As protests and violence continue across the country, President Donald Trump and his team have sprung into action. But not so much to heal the nation or to announce much-needed reforms. Instead, Trump has moved to capitalize on the carnage for political gain.
The current crisis was triggered by the killing of George Floyd, a black man who died in police custody after an officer knelt on his neck for nearly 9 minutes while he begged for help. A moment like this calls for a healer-in-chief. But that is difficult for Trump, who brings plenty of his own racial baggage, with dozens of incendiary and racist comments spanning decades.
So instead, Trump has weaponized the crisis, by blaming his political opponents and stirring up conspiracy theories, in an apparent effort to boost his own reelection chances this November.
This was on full display Monday, when Trump threatened a military crackdown and police dispersed peaceful protests near the White House to clear the way for a presidential photo-op at the nearby St. John’s Episcopal Church. Shortly after police unleashed tear gas, horses and rubber bullets on the nonviolent crowd, Trump said he was “an ally of all peaceful protestors.”
Earlier in the day, Trump angrily encouraged the nation’s governors to more aggressively target protesters in their states. He said they should “dominate” protestors to quell violent outbursts.
For days, Trump turned to provocative rhetoric and egged on state violence. On Twitter, he urged police to “get tough and fight,” threatened to send “vicious dogs” on protesters near the White House, and called for “many arrests.” He borrowed a phrase – “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” – from a 1960s-era police chief who championed violent police crackdowns.
According to Trump, the violence has been fueled by Democratic officials, the far-left movement Antifa, and even former Vice President Joe Biden. He has called out Democratic governors and mayors who primarily oversee these US cities. And he told Americans not to “lay the blame on others” and claimed out of the blue that white supremacists aren’t “mixing in” with the violence.
In a misleading press conference over the weekend, Attorney General Bill Barr gave Trump an assist by claiming the unrest was largely “planned, organized and driven by anarchic and far-left extremists using Antifa-like tactics.” This may be true – but it’s far from the complete picture.
CNN reported on Sunday that federal law enforcement is aware of organized groups from across the political spectrum that are exploiting the chaos. This includes Antifa, but it also includes right-wing groups that support anti-government and white supremacist ideologies.
Sen. Marco Rubio, a top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, acknowledged that some right-wing groups are encouraging and committing violence, specifically members of the “Boogaloo movement,” an emerging far-right group that wants to spark a civil war in the US.
These are inconvenient facts for the President. His own rhetoric has fueled conspiracy groups over the years – dating back to his support for the racist “birther” movement about President Barack Obama’s citizenship, and continuing through this weekend with re-tweets of a QAnon supporter. He has found common cause with these groups and sees them as part of his base.
Maybe that’s why he has jumped to conclusions that fit his pre-ordinated narrative, and is trying to squeeze out any political benefit from this crisis, no matter how many Americans are hurting.
Politicians from both sides of the aisle quickly denounced Trump’s actions on Monday.
“At so many times during these past several weeks, when the country needed compassion and leadership the most, it was simply nowhere to be found,” Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, said during a news conference. “Instead, we got bitterness, combativeness and self-interest.”
This wasn’t the first time some Republicans broke ranks from Trump and condemned his handling of racial controversies. But it seems clear that Trump is digging in for the long haul.