Perspective is nice, but there’s no point in waiting any longer until things settle down to assess those things. Things are not settling down. They may never settle down. This seemed to be the Friday night that the country finally fell apart. The curfew in Minneapolis didn’t work. At the moment, the city is on fire, and angry protesters have surrounded the White House – not an angry black mob – not the “thugs” the president hates. These were rather ordinary-looking mostly white folks, and it was the same in Los Angeles, where some in the crowd tried to beat the crap out of one cop, which turned out to be a bad idea. That just pissed him off. Then things settled down. The same sort of crowd stormed CNN headquarters in Atlanta, which must have pleased the president. He hates CNN. They’re mean to him. But it was a night of something like anarchy from Brooklyn to Sacramento. The nation was on fire.
This might have been one of those “perfect storm” events. Everything went wrong all at once. That perspective was offered by the Washington Post’s Matt Zapotosky and Isaac Stanley-Becker in this item:
A global pandemic has now killed more than 100,000 Americans and left 40 million unemployed in its wake. Protests – some of them violent – have once again erupted in spots across the country over police killings of black Americans.
President Trump, meanwhile, is waging a war against Twitter, attacking his political rivals, criticizing a voting practice he himself uses and suggesting that looters could be shot.
Follow the links. It’s all absurd, and infinitely depressing:
America’s persistent political dysfunction and racial inequality were laid bare this week, as the coronavirus death toll hit a tragic new milestone and as the country was served yet another reminder of how black people are killed by law enforcement in disproportionately high numbers. Together, the events present a grim tableau of a nation in crisis – one seared by violence against its citizens, plagued by a deadly disease that remains uncontained and rattled by a devastating blow to its economy.
“The threads of our civic life could start unraveling, because everybody’s living in a tinderbox,” said historian and Rice University professor Douglas Brinkley.
Barbara Ransby, a historian at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a longtime political activist, said the toll of the coronavirus outbreak made long-standing racial inequities newly stark. Then, images of police violence made those same disparities visceral.
“People are seething about all kinds of things,” said Ransby, the author of Making All Black Lives Matter: Reimagining Freedom in the Twenty-First Century. “There are major turning points and ruptures in history. This is one of these moments, but we’ve not seen how it will fully play out.”
But we may have seen enough to despair:
In the days after a 46-year-old black man died in the custody of Minneapolis police in an incident caught on video, demonstrators took to the streets. In that city, a police precinct was breached and set ablaze, along with other businesses. In Colorado, shots were fired near the statehouse. At a protest in Louisville, seven people were shot.
Authorities announced charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter against the officer in the Minneapolis case Friday – which observers saw as a development that might quell some of the immediate unrest.
But some said the tumult, set in the broader context of the twin health and economic emergencies, could mark a rupture as dramatic as signature turning points in the country’s history, from the economic dislocation of the Great Depression to the social convulsions of 1968.
That was not a good year, from Prague to Paris to the streets of Chicago, but this may be an odder year:
It was only in February that the Senate voted to acquit Trump after he became the third president in U.S. history to be impeached. The next month, much of American business and social activity shut down in an attempt to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus. The country has just now begun to reopen, with culture wars raging over how and when it is safe and appropriate to do so.
Then, this week, Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee into the neck of a handcuffed black man, pinning him to the ground. George Floyd died. His cries of “I can’t breathe” quickly rocketed around the world.
But that’s not all:
The protests that erupted in Minnesota spread to places like Columbus, Phoenix, Denver and Louisville, which recently experienced a controversial police killing when officers serving a warrant shot and killed a 26-year-old EMT inside her home. More demonstrations broke out Friday evening across the country, including in the District.
Floyd’s death followed the slaying of a black man, Ahmaud Arbery, who was jogging in Georgia and a viral dust-up in New York’s Central Park when a white woman called the police on a black man there to bird-watch. Both incidents also were captured on video.
“I was amazed watching people who were out,” said Raoul Cunningham, head of the NAACP branch in Louisville. “To me, it made clear that we’re at a period of time like we’ve never faced before.”
And then one man made things worse:
President Trump responded to the latest crisis Friday as he often does: by lashing out. In a tweet that Twitter labeled as violating its rules meant to stem the glorification of violence, the president attacked Minneapolis’s mayor, a Democrat, labeled the protesters “THUGS” and vowed to send in the National Guard.
“Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” he wrote, appearing to echo a warning issued more than 50 years ago by Miami’s police chief amid unrest that gripped black neighborhoods there.
Trump later sought to clarify that he did not “want” looters to be shot. “It was spoken as a fact, not as a statement,” he said.
No one knew what he meant by that. He was quoting a man who had once said that looters will be shot dead on sight, period, by the police or by simple patriots who love America. Property crimes are capital crimes. Don’t even shoplift a small bag of chips. You’ll die. The president’s clarification clarified nothing, but that might have been intentional:
Brinkley, the Rice University historian, said the moment seemed akin to Richard Nixon’s presidency, when the country was divided politically over the Vietnam War and the president was attacking the press over the Pentagon Papers.
Trump, he said, seems to see the unrest as a potentially helpful “political issue,” if he can position himself as a law-and-order candidate cracking down on anarchy and possibly distract from the pandemic. A Washington Post national average of polls in May shows Trump trailing Biden by seven points, 42 percent to 49 percent.
“Is this going to be the summer of covid-19? Or is this going to be the summer of urban unrest?” Brinkley said. “And Trump does not want it to be the summer of covid-19.”
But that leaves a vacuum at the top:
Jameel Jaffer, executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, said Trump seemed to be exacerbating the crisis.
“It seems like many of the institutions that we have relied on to check government power have been weakened considerably over the last few years,” he said. “Norms that we took for granted have been eroded. And at a time when what is most needed is thoughtful, calm, deliberate leadership, we have the opposite.”
Philip Rucker and Toluse Olorunnipa explain what that opposite is:
Nobody forced the crisis in Minneapolis upon President Trump. He chose to inflame the tinderbox himself when he issued an ultimatum to people protesting the death of a black man there under the custody of a white police officer.
In a pair of tweets sent at 12:53 a.m. Friday, Trump threatened to deploy the National Guard to use lethal force against demonstrators he denigrated as “THUGS.” His ominous warning – “when the looting starts, the shooting starts. Thank you!” – was flagged by Twitter as a violation of the social media platform’s rule against glorifying violence.
Having contributed to another national cleavage over racial justice, a president who was elected to lead the nation through crises effectively retreated from the responsibility of doing so on this one.
But wait, there’s more:
At the same time, Trump on Friday abdicated the traditional role of an American president abroad, ceding global leadership by announcing that he was “terminating” U.S. membership in the World Health Organization.
So let the World Health Organization – now led by France and Germany and lavishly financed by China – solve the world’s health problems. Let them all be heroes to the third world, or the whole world. Let them come up with the vaccine that ends the current pandemic. Who the hell cares? We’ll develop our own, and no one else gets it. And we will not share our data with them. And we don’t want to know what they find out about anything. Those people are evil!
That’s an interesting leadership model:
“He’s perfectly incapable of exercising leadership because he doesn’t understand what leadership is,” said Max Skidmore, a political scientist at the University of Missouri at Kansas City and author of a book on presidential leadership during health crises. “He thinks of leadership as whipping up outrage from a crowd, and having them yell and support him.”
That does sum things up nicely:
Trump called an afternoon news conference in the Rose Garden, read a scripted statement railing against China and the WHO over the coronavirus pandemic, and then turned his back on journalists shouting questions about the unrest in Minneapolis. He neither issued a perfunctory call for unity nor talked about George Floyd, who died Monday after a police officer pinned him to the ground and knelt on his neck, prompting the simple plea, “I can’t breathe.”
But he did clarify one thing:
Trump’s “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” phrase has an ugly racial past. The phrase was notoriously used in 1967 by Miami’s tough-talking police chief, Walter Headley, who was white, to warn robbers in the city’s black neighborhoods that he could use shotguns and dogs at his command.
Pressed by reporters, Trump claimed ignorance of the origins. “I’ve heard that phrase for a long time,” he said. “I don’t know where it came from or where it originated. I wouldn’t know a thing like that.”
And then someone on his staff must have told him to cool it:
At the end of the day, after ducking the issue in the Rose Garden event, Trump delivered brief remarks during a meeting with business leaders in the State Dining Room.
“I want to express our nation’s deepest condolences and most heartfelt sympathies to the family of George Floyd. Terrible event – terrible, terrible thing that happened,” Trump said, adding that he has asked the Justice Department to expedite its investigation into Floyd’s death. “It should never be allowed to happen, a thing like that. But we’re determined that justice be served.”
Trump added: “We can’t allow a situation like happened in Minneapolis to descend further into lawless anarchy and chaos. The looters should not be allowed to drown out the voices of so many peaceful protesters.”
He no long spoke of those “thugs” he had repeatedly been railing against. Maybe he never said that, but he had said enough:
Trump’s response Friday represented a departure from how he handled other recent acts of protest. When crowds of mostly white people, some armed, demonstrated outside the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing and demanded that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) loosen regulations designed to slow the spread of the coronavirus, the president praised them.
“The Governor of Michigan should give a little, and put out the fire,” Trump tweeted on May 1. “These are very good people, but they are angry. They want their lives back again, safely! See them, talk to them, make a deal.”
But as footage of black demonstrators outside a police station that had been set ablaze in Minneapolis aired on national television late Thursday night and into the morning Friday, Trump adopted a different tone.
“Either the very weak Radical Left Mayor, Jacob Frey, get his act together and bring the City under control, or I will send in the National Guard & get the job done right,” Trump tweeted. “These THUGS are dishonoring the memory of George Floyd, and I won’t let that happen. Just spoke to Gov. Tim Walz and told him the Military is with him all the way. Any difficulty and we will assume control, but when the looting starts, the shooting starts. Thank you!”
Walz, a Democrat, told reporters that Trump’s tweets risked “inflaming” an already tense situation.
“It’s just not helpful,” Walz said. “The city of Minneapolis is doing everything they can. If mistakes are made and there’s accountability, we need to do that. But, in the moment where we’re at, in a moment that is so volatile, anything we do to add fuel to that fire is really, really challenging.”
It’s also really, really stupid and dangerous, as Max Boot explains here:
We know how a normal president responds when a white police officer ignites furious protests by killing a black man. It is the way President Barack Obama responded in 2014 after a grand jury refused to indict a white police officer who had fatally shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and the National Guard had to be called in to deal with looting and fires.
Obama expressed sympathy for the protesters – their anger, he noted, was “rooted in realities that have existed in this country for a long time” – while making clear that he had no sympathy with violence: “Burning buildings, torching cars, destroying property, putting people at risk – that’s destructive and there’s no excuse for it. Those are criminal acts. And people should be prosecuted if they engage in criminal acts.”
Obama called for anyone who broke the law to be “prosecuted” – not shot dead on the spot – and it seems that Donald Trump is proud that he’s not Obama:
Consciously or not, Trump was quoting Miami Police Chief Walter Headley, who used that very phrase – “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” – in 1967. Headley also said, “We don’t mind being accused of police brutality,” and he charged that, while most “Negroes” were “law abiding,” “ten per cent are young hoodlums who have taken advantage of the civil rights campaign.” Headley’s brutal rhetoric and tactics were later blamed for inciting a three-day riot in Miami in 1968.
But no one should be surprised by any of this:
More broadly, Trump is channeling the kind of “law and order” rhetoric employed by the Republican Party beginning in the 1960s to woo Southern whites and working-class Northern whites away from the Democratic Party. Richard M. Nixon pioneered this so-called Southern Strategy, but he was much more subtle than Trump, because he didn’t want to alienate white liberals or embrace segregationism. When asked in a 1968 how he would define “law and order,” Nixon said: “I have often said that you cannot have order unless you have justice, because if you stifle dissent, if you just stifle progress, you’re going to have an explosion and you’re going to have disorder. On the other hand, you can’t have progress without order.”
Can you imagine Trump saying that? I can’t.
Nixon could be careful when he needed to be. Trump is more like the guy who used to quote Walter Headley all the time:
Our current president actually sounds more like George Wallace… As governor of Alabama, Wallace had vowed in 1963: “segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” But during his third-party campaign for president in 1968, following the passage of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, Wallace didn’t run on an explicitly segregationist platform. Instead, he focused on a “law and order” message that drew on white voters’ concerns about rising crime, urban riots, antiwar protests, liberal court rulings, busing and other hot-button issues. His slogan was “Stand up for America.”
But the connection is more direct than that:
Wallace was not subtle about his threats of violence. At Madison Square Garden in New York on Oct. 24, 1968, he expressed disgust at demonstrators trying to block President Lyndon B. Johnson’s limousine: “I tell you when November comes, the first time they lie down in front of my limousine, it’ll be the last one they ever lay down in front of; their day is over!”
A few minutes later, shedding his jacket and clenching his fist, Wallace shouted: “We don’t have riots in Alabama. They start a riot down there, first one of ’em to pick up a brick gets a bullet in the brain, that’s all. And then you walk over to the next one and say, ‘All right, pick up a brick. We just want to see you pick up one of them bricks, now!'”
As historian Dan T. Carter notes in his history of the modern conservative movement, “The crowd went berserk.” It was obvious to both supporters and detractors what Wallace was saying.
He was saying that black men will die, and he’s back:
Now, in Donald Trump, we have the closest thing we have ever had to having George Wallace in the White House – and Republicans are nearly unanimous in their approbation. The president is pouring gasoline on the flames of racial division, and the Republican Party is holding the jerrycan for him.
This is where the Southern Strategy has led after half a century.
Dahlia Lithwick disagrees, because Trump cannot think like that:
As we grapple with Trump’s decision to quote Headley in the midst of racial unrest, there is one question that will come up: Did Donald Trump even know what he was referencing? As is so often the case, we can hastily tumble into a pointless wormhole to nowhere, debating Trump’s understanding of the summer of ’68 and whether he deliberately invoked a racist politician quoting a racist cop about deliberate police brutality, or if he just liked the phrase because it sounded like it was possibly minted by a racist Dr. Seuss.
Did Stephen Miller, who surely knows his history, put him up to this? Or was Trump quietly telling militias and law enforcement to go ahead and smash some heads into cars, as he has done before, and he just stumbled into a rhyme?
Trump’s defenders will certainly say, as they have done a thousand, thousand times before, that this wasn’t deliberate racism or incitement, that he was joking/being ironic/owning the libs/masterfully diverting attention or whatever else they invoke to excuse him. Don’t take him literally or seriously, they smirk.
But that’s a real problem now:
If you are Donald Trump, artlessly calling for people to take up arms against Hillary Clinton, as he did in 2016, or calling for citizen protesters to LIBERATE their states from beneath their governor’s public health directives, as he did last month, whether you understand the meaning and context of your statements and whether you intend for them to be read as inviting violence, just doesn’t matter. Trump is the most obvious and careless beneficiary of the ultimate manifestation of white privilege: Like the law itself, anticipation of consequences and understanding of context are for suckers. If you’re wealthy, white, and devoid of a worldview that contemplates the reactions of others, you can exist in this way, without knowing what you are doing, and still never, ever be held to account.
And then there are the other folks:
Consider that if you are George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, or Christian Cooper, you are asked to move through the world not only accountable to everyone around you for what you do, how you jog, where you sleep, and how you speak, but also to be somehow responsible for everything you don’t do as well.
As my friend Aymann Ismail wrote this week, if you are an American of color, you spend your days smiling to disarm people who may fear you irrationally, or crossing streets to avoid alarming people who may think you want to harm them. In America, if you are a person of color, you must possess so capacious an imagination that you need not simply control your every word and move and act so as to avoid looking like you want to do harm, but you must also anticipate how anyone and everyone will interpret your words and behaviors, because it is their perception that matters. R. Eric Thomas says that if you are a person of color, what you think is immaterial: “You learn, at some point, how to perform being non-threatening and you learn that often it matters less how well you perform and more whether the audience for said performance believes it. Or wants to believe it. Or is in the mood to believe it.”
Ah, but if you are a white man, armed with, say, a bazooka, which you believe to be a benign First Amendment statement rather than a threat, attending what you insist is a lawful protest, which you believe to be another benign First Amendment statement, regardless of what the police say, well then you are responsible for nothing. Not the terror of others, which isn’t your concern, and not the public retreat or silencing of others, which is, after all, not your concern. The entire sphere of your responsibility is you…
One side demands no awareness of the thoughts and fears of anyone; one side demands infinite awareness of every possible reaction by anyone, everywhere.
Our president is not one of “those” people:
Donald Trump thinks he is immune from any consequences, violent or otherwise, that may stem from his Twitter feed because he has never for even a moment in his life been asked to imagine the harm his words can do to others. The world has seemingly never asked him to do so, and it has never burdened him with accountability for such harms. As F. Scott Fitzgerald observed a century ago, the very wealthy in America are stunningly free from consequence: “They smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”
And Donald Trump has constructed an entire theory of personal and presidential immunity around the proposition that he cannot be held responsible for anything he says, or does, or initiates, or incites, because he doesn’t care to be. If we are foolish enough to seek meaning, or impute logic, or lash history and context to his words, well, we’re the real suckers.
Donald Trump doesn’t even have to understand the brutal history of American racism and racialized police violence – the lifeblood of his slurs – to utter them, or to benefit from them. Racism has enabled his entire, illiterate, clueless existence, whether he understands it or not.
And of course that may be why the nation is finally falling apart:
It cannot continue to be the working definition of “liberty” that one class of Americans is permitted to break and to smash, solely because they are incapable of imagining that their actions have any consequences, while a second class of Americans can neither jog, nor sleep, nor go bird-watching, nor film news, because the first class of Americans is imagining make-believe harms.
One of the reasons the country is on fire is that millions of people are tired of living in a world in which their every word and step can get them killed, while for a shrinking handful of others, nothing they do can ever matter.
Just because the president cannot comprehend this reality doesn’t immunize him from inflaming it.
And that is what he did. And that may be how this nation ends.