As America sees its biggest wave of street protests since the Vietnam War, Donald Trump has done little to tamp down the anger fueling the sometimes-violent demonstrations. But he's done plenty to widen the divisions on display, whether he's trying to discredit those protesting George Floyd's murder as "thugs" or fantasizing about unleashing the "most vicious dogs and most ominous weapons" on protesters outside the White House.
The conservatives who made the case for Trump in 2016 understood the risk that this might happen. Yet many of them refuse to face up to it now.
Shortly after Donald Trump won the GOP's presidential nomination, The Claremont Review of Books, a conservative publication that has preached endlessly over the years about the need for "prudence," "virtue," and "statesmanship" in politics, ran its infamous Flight 93 essay. A bouillabaisse of metaphors, the article hectored the still shell-shocked conservative establishment to snap out of it and line up behind its man. The pseudonymous author argued that a Hillary Clinton presidency posed an existential threat to conservatives and their agenda. If a "vulgarian" like Trump charged the cockpit—as the passengers of the ill-fated Flight 93 did on 9/11—he might very well crash it, but there would at least be a chance for a safe landing. With Clinton's liberal "pedal-to-the-metal" presidency, on the other hand, conservative culture warriors would be playing "Russian roulette with a semi-auto." And so, the author concluded, conservatives must use the passions that Trump was unleashing to their advantage. (The article's author was later revealed to be Mike Anton, a former Rudy Guiliani speechwriter who went on to do a stint in the Trump administration.)
Anton's argument jolted many conservatives out of their misgivings about Trump. The prospect of winning the culture war by having a leader who played by his rules, not the liberals', was too tantalizing to give up. Only preening "moralists" would reject him, argued Bill Bennett, President Ronald Reagan's secretary of education (and the author, ironically, of The Book of Virtues). Columnist Mona Charen, one of the few right-wing holdouts, lamented at the time that conservatives had talked themselves into believing that if they were serious about achieving their ends, they were required to vote for Trump. The means he'd deploy didn't matter.
The last few weeks have exposed the perils of this thinking. To the extent that Trump delivers Claremont conservatives a victory, it will be a pyrrhic one; the fires he's stoking will scorch the nation and discredit their movement.
After the killing of George Floyd, long-simmering tensions about police brutality and race boiled over into the streets. Most presidents would have responded by dishing out soothing platitudes pleading for calm, national healing, and the need to bring the culprits to justice. It wouldn't have ended the turmoil, but it wouldn't have exacerbated it either.
Trump took a different approach. At first, he didn't say anything. Or rather, he didn't say anything about Floyd. In the 48 hours after Floyd's death, Trump twice tweeted about bringing an alleged murderer to justice—not the cop who killed Floyd, but MSNBC's Joe Scarborough, who Trump suggested had bumped off an employee 18 years ago. (There is no evidence for this.) He also boasted about the stock market rally, accused Barack Obama of spying on his campaign, castigated Democrats' "close relationship with Fake News Media," and complained that Twitter had an anti-conservative bias.
When he finally broke his silence, Trump issued a pro forma statement about how "sad and tragic" Floyd's death was—then quickly moved on to denounce the "radical mayor" of Minneapolis who couldn't "get his act together." He threatened to use the military to control rioters and ominously warned on Twitter that "when the looting starts, the shooting starts."
Things only deteriorated thereafter, as Trump tried to discredit those protesting Floyd's murder as "thugs" (a contrast with his claim that there were some "very fine people" at the Charlottesville white nationalist rally that left a woman dead); fantasized about unleashing the "most vicious dogs and most ominous weapons" on demonstrators outside the White House; had a peacefully assembled crowd tear-gassed to clear his way to a local church for a cheap photo-op; retweeted TV host Glenn Beck's clip questioning Floyd's character; threatened to invoke powers he does not have to declare antifa a domestic terrorist outfit; and pledged that the police would once again "dominate the streets."
None of this was out of character.
During his campaign, Trump notoriously promised to pay the medical bills of supporters who "knocked the crap" out of protesters. At a Florida rally last year, he went on a tirade against Central American asylum seekers, calling them "invaders" and "thugs." And when someone in the audience advised him to "shoot" migrants to stop them from coming, Trump quipped, "Only in the Panhandle can you get away with that statement." Trump also advised Long Island cops three years ago that they shouldn't be "too nice" to suspects when they arrest them, relishing the thought of "these thugs" being "thrown into the back of a paddy wagon" in a "rough" fashion—never mind that it was precisely such practices that had resulted in 25-year-old Freddie Gray's death at the hands of Baltimore police.
Given mounting nationwide concerns about police brutality, Floyd's murder would have generated unrest under any president, especially since it came so close on the heels of Ahmaud Arbery's brutal lynching while he was jogging and Breonna Taylor's shooting death in a no-knock raid. After all, riots also broke out under Obama after the deaths of Gray and Michael Brown.
But Trump has poured gasoline on an already explosive situation by acting as though the heavy-handed use of police violence isn't the cause of the growing social unrest, but the solution.
Unsurprisingly, 80 percent of the respondents in a recent poll—including 66 percent of Republicans—believe that the country is spinning out of control. Are folks at Claremont having any second thoughts?
No. They're circling the wagons.
Claremont's top brass last week issued a statement rejecting out of hand the possibility that the protests are legitimate grassroots uprising triggered by genuine concerns. It declared the notion of systematic racism in American law enforcement a "reckless" and "destructive myth" peddled by liberal elites who believe that "America is evil." Those elites, the statement insists, are the true instigators of the riots. The statement also demands that "those in power be held to account"—meaning not Trump, but those governors and mayors who they feel didn't use enough force to smash the movement. Berating "leaders on the Right" for not doing enough to refute such "untruths," the statement tells them that the next election, like the last one, is about "preserving" America from those who seek to "destroy it"—basically a call to arms to vehemently defend and re-elect Trump.
With some exceptions—most notably Rush Limbaugh, who expressed horror at Floyd's death and called for first-degree murder charges against the cop who killed him—right-wing talk show hosts have peddled some version of the Claremont line. Mark Levin declared, "The Democratic Party is at war internally with the United States." Tucker Carlson called Minnesota protesters "criminal mobs" and castigated Republicans for not reacting more intensely against the violence. His Fox colleagues Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham have trained their ire primarily at the demonstrators who, Hannity says, are "exploiting" Floyd's death. Even the more sober conservatives at the Wall Street Journal editorial page, late-comers to the Trump bandwagon, are claiming that "liberal cities" who refuse to control "radical mayhem" are the real problem.
But it is not plausible to put all the blame on them. Nearly four years of confrontations with political opponents and attacks on disfavored groups by the most powerful man on the top have fueled the anger now on display in the streets.
Trump is intensifying the warfare, but he's not winning conservatives the culture war. They made a bet when they installed him in the cockpit, but now the engines are on fire and they can't jump out.