“I understand the hurt, I understand the pain,” Donald Trump claimed Friday as he read from a prepared statement addressing the racial violence in Minneapolis following the killing this week of an unarmed black man, George Floyd, by the city’s police.
It was a subdued version of the president we’re treated to from time to time. Someone savvy on his staff whispers in his ear or he writes on an index card with a big Sharpie to remind himself that he is supposed to act like a human being in the face of tragedy.
But his words rang hollow, coming hours after he’d railed about “THUGS” on Twitter, expressing his real feelings. Trump has no intention of addressing the root cause of this killing—racially biased excessive force by police. He won’t and he can’t because he has built his political career by scapegoating people of color.
It’s only a matter of time before the real Trump re-emerges, the one who didn’t bother to differentiate between protesters who were peaceful and those that weren’t. They were all “THUGS,” the president of the United States declared early Friday morning as he ominously warned, purposefully echoing some very dark American history, that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
The message was so noxious that a suddenly emboldened Twitter made the unprecedented move of concealing the tweet behind a warning that it is “glorifying violence.” Of course, this was far from the first time Trump has done this on Twitter. Earlier this week, he callously shared a video of a supporter suggesting “the only good Democrat is a dead Democrat.” Even as people directly inspired by this president’s rhetoric have resorted to violence, he continues to protest that he’s just kidding.
Hours later, the backlash to his “shooting” tweet brought forth a rare “clarification” from Trump, about how his comments were “spoken as a fact, not as a statement.” Whatever that means, it doesn’t explain why he injected the racially offensive term “thug” into the conversation or the pithy “thank you!” following what amounted to a dangerous taunt. Thus his prepared statement Friday afternoon, in the hopes that the third time would be the messaging charm here.
Bill Barr, always the sober Trump translator, managed to be more coherent in his official statement about the Floyd video, which he called “harrowing and deeply disturbing.” He confirmed that investigations which could lead to criminal charges were underway. As for structural policing reforms? Seriously, literally, nope.
Meanwhile, the president’s campaign is claiming the conflict in Minneapolis was somehow engineered by Democrats to “make money.”
An insufficient at best response to the issue of police brutality from this White House was a foregone conclusion ever since the Floyd story literally and figuratively caught fire. The president has never seen a racial conflict he didn’t want to exploit for his own benefit, and since he is reeling from sinking poll numbers and a widely held perception that he’s bungled the response to the coronavirus crisis, Minneapolis probably seems like an ideal distraction for him. Whenever his back is against the wall, a bout of good old fashioned race-baiting always seems to do the trick with his devoted following.
Naturally, his supporters on Fox News will place an emphasis on lawlessness in the wake of Floyd’s death—the far right has always worried more about the destruction of property over the destruction of black life. And now that the focus has shifted to clashes between protesters and police, Trump’s tweet helped him avoid the real issue at hand: that Floyd’s killer inexplicably remained free for days after his death.
Trump actually had the audacity to claim that looters in Minneapolis, who he obviously is trying to conflate with the many thousands of people protesting injustice there, are “dishonoring the memory” of Floyd. But what has Trump done to honor Floyd’s memory? Supposedly he has encouraged the FBI and the Justice Department to look into the case, but just as he has not expressed real concern and compassion for the victims of the coronavirus, he has yet to condemn the act of fatal violence perpetrated on Floyd and caught on camera, for the entire world to see. Reports that Derek Chauvin, the officer whose knee was on Floyd’s throat, has a well-documented history of using excessive force, also won’t sway a president and a voting populace in denial about the realities of police brutality.
The president could say something that speaks to the anxiety that people of color live with everyday—that they are never safe from the whims of overzealous white authorities, even when bird-watching or reporting the news on CNN. Don’t hold your breath.
President Barack Obama put it best when he said in a statement regarding Floyd’s killing: “This shouldn’t be normal in 2020 America. It can’t be normal.”
But, tragically, it is normal. And as long white people continue to make excuses for the four police officers who violently apprehended Floyd (who was being detained for having allegedly committed a non-violent act of “forgery”) or try to change the subject and use a handful of looters to dismiss an army of protesters, this vicious cycle of death will remain routine.
Trump hasn’t yet defended the police here, but he was clearly trying Friday morning to change the subject from what appears to be an act of murder, committed under the color of law, to calling on armed forces to keep “the blacks,” as he’s often referred to African-Americans, in their place.
This is no surprise. Trump has routinely endorsed and encouraged police brutality, vilified non-violent protesters of color and spit out racist views. His default reaction to crises like these is to find a way to stir the pot that will benefit him electorally.
While he temporarily backed away from that approach on Friday, the sad fact is that it just might. But for people of conscience (especially white people) who view the cellphone footage of Floyd pleading for his life and struggling to breathe with an ounce of humanity this can be, and should be, an inflection point.
Amid much more upheaval in multiple cities Friday night, don't be surprised if Trump is right back where he started, threatening to shoot the thugs, by Saturday.
This president has been able to largely avoid a direct conflict with the African-American community during his time in office, instead heaping most of his racial invective on this nation’s immigrant communities. But now he has demonstrated yet again his incapacity to lead at best, and his desire to deepen divisions at worst, eliminating any remaining doubt that he has failed in his dubious 2016 campaign promise to dramatically improve race relations in this country.
During that bitter race, Trump condescendingly asked black voters (while speaking to a group of almost exclusively white voters) “what do you have to lose” by supporting him. A not insignificant number of black voters, and particularly men, did take a chance with him, and many white voters, who were uncomfortable with his racial rhetoric decided to place their faith in him too.
After Charlottesville, after Hurricane Maria, after kids in cages, after George Floyd—it’s painfully evident for millions of Americans what they had to lose when Trump won his electoral college victory almost four years ago. It was our lives.