‘The crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon come to an end,’ said Donald Trump on 21 July 2016, as he accepted the Republican party’s nomination for the presidency of the United States. ‘Safety will be restored.’
Mark that down as a broken promise. On Friday, as a seething mob menaced the White House, the Secret Service rushed Mr Trump down to the emergency bunker under the East Wing. Downtown Washington has come to resemble a war zone. On Monday, police deployed cavalry and tear gas to clear Lafayette Square so the President could shoot a video of himself walking outside looking tough. In other parts of the capital, rioters carried on smashing buildings and starting fires.
At the beginning of his presidency, Trump vowed to end ‘this American carnage’. Now, as we approach the end of his first term, the real carnage seems to be just beginning. What with the Covid crisis, a terrible recession brewing, and now barbarism on the streets, how can he possibly expect to be re-elected?
Most Americans who have taken to the streets want to protest peacefully. People are horrified by the widely circulated footage from Minnesota of a police officer apparently killing George Floyd, a black man, with a knee to the neck. But righteous protest in Minnesota soon turned into riot. Unrest then spread to almost every major city in America. Looting, arson and vandalism are now rife in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Denver, Portland, Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, Seattle, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Baltimore, and many other places.
In 2016, Trump made another big promise to America’s so-called ‘silent majority’. He vowed to roll back political correctness — a sickness, he said, that ‘is killing our country’. In response to Trumpism, however, America’s institutions — the media, the universities, the corporations — have only become more powerfully PC. Amid the riots, elite worthiness has turned into a sort of self-loathing mania. Major business chains are issuing woke statements in solidarity with the ‘protestors’ who are ransacking their shops. Political figures are hectoring the public for their ‘complicity’ in police brutality against blacks: ‘silence is violence’ is the mantra.
In Columbus, Ohio, the city hall declared that racism is, like Covid, a ‘public health crisis’. In Seattle, mayor Jenny Durkan insisted that the violence ‘has been instigated and perpetuated by white men’. (Footage from Seattle clearly showed black and white thugs destroying property and police cars. Diversity is their strength.) Not wanting to be outdone, Massachusetts' attorney general Maura Healey said: ‘Yes, America is burning, but that’s how forests grow.’ News reporters for many networks have gone out of their way to downplay the destructiveness. One MSNBC correspondent stood in front of a large burning building in Minnesota in order to say that the ‘protest… is not generally speaking unruly’.
Worst of all for Trump fans, even the President now seems reluctant to offend progressive pieties. The Trump re-election campaign has been making a concerted effort to woo black voters. Republican strategists reckon that if their candidate can expand his share of the African-American vote from 8 per cent to 20 per cent, victory at the ballot will be assured. Egged on by his son-in-law Jared Kushner and daughter Ivanka, Trump has pushed criminal justice reform and other measures intended to boost his black support. As Minnesota erupted in violence, two White House policy advisers, Brooke Rollins and Ja’Ron Smith, urged Trump not to say anything that might be deemed racist.
That may seem shrewd advice, but the President’s initial reluctance to condemn the riots has infuriated large parts of his right-wing base, the people who fell in love with Trump precisely because he never hesitated to ‘own the libs’. Hardcore Trump supporters are
Trump did make outrageous remarks on social media. ‘When the looting starts, the shooting starts,’ he tweeted, which prompted the usual howls of indignation. But he didn’t combine the trolling with action — at least not until Monday night, after five days of havoc, when he addressed the nation and vowed to take back control by force. The delay could cost him. He has tried to blame Democratic governors and mayors for not getting to grips with the disorder. But he could at any stage have used his own federal powers to send in the National Guard. As Commander--in-Chief, he could even have invoked the Insurrection Act in order to deploy military troops — something he threatened to do last year in response to illegal immigration.
Trump’s focus seems to have been elsewhere. On Saturday, as his admirers begged him to play the strongman and crush the troublemakers, he was busy attending Elon Musk’s SpaceX launch in Florida. As the President waited for the rocket to take off, the sound system played ‘Macho Man’ by the Village People — another great comic Trump moment. Given the apocalyptic atmosphere of 2020, however, voters may be less and less inclined to find him amusing.
What’s certain is that Lady Luck, that cruel pornstar, has deserted the President. Until February this year, he had seemed blessed with the most ludicrous good fortune. His opponents always somehow conspired to trip themselves up. The Russiagate and impeachment sagas backfired on the Democrats. It seems a decade ago now, but in January, on a whim, he nearly started a war with Iran. Somehow, he emerged from that perilous situation looking like a strategic mastermind. And the US economy kept booming.
Then came the virus. Trump’s winning streak ended, as it did 20 years ago when his casino empire began to collapse. None of it is his fault necessarily. Trump can’t be blamed for Covid-19 and its ruination of the economy, even if his handling of the pandemic has been widely criticised. His enemies can accuse of him of sowing division, but no reasonable person believes the President should be responsible for every bad cop in America. Killings by police in America’s inner cities have declined under his leadership, not that anybody would give him credit for that. Politics isn’t meant to be fair.
The last president who failed to be re-elected was George H.W. Bush in 1992. Unemployment was high then — though not nearly at the catastrophic level it is now. That summer, Bush struggled to contain the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles. (Funnily enough, the then attorney general Bill Barr is now Trump’s attorney general, 28 years later. Racial aggravation in America often feels like the same sad play performed over and over, sometimes with the same cast.) Bush had to bring in the National Guard and the military to quell the disturbances in LA. America seemed out-of-control and the president out-of-touch. He duly lost to that charismatic young centrist Bill Clinton.
The good news for Trump is that Joe Biden is no Bill Clinton. So far Biden’s response to the riots has been sensible, if unremarkable. He has emerged from self-isolation in his basement in order to issue platitudes about reversing ‘-systemic racism’ and ‘healing the wounds that have long plagued our country’. All well and good, but Biden is a doddery old man who can’t seem to control his mind or his mouth. Only last week he told an African-American radio host: ‘If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black’, which made good liberals everywhere wince.
Biden may be a moderate, in his saner moments, but his party is fast embracing a far-leftism that leaves Middle America cold. In the 1990s, the Democrats won by seizing the middle ground. Today their leaders spout sub-Marxist claptrap about structural white oppression. It’s interesting that the children of three prominent Democratic politicians have all been implicated in the current civil unrest. Minnesota congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s daughter Isra Hirsi tweeted requests for ‘supplies’ to help her ‘comrades’ in the streets. Minnesota attorney general Keith Ellison’s son Jeremiah declared his support for Antifa, the insurgent group which the Trump administration is now designating a terrorist group. And New York mayor Bill de Blasio’s daughter Chiara was arrested in Manhattan on Saturday night, breaking the curfew that her father had imposed. ‘I’m proud that she cares so much,’ said Mayor Bill. The revolution will eat its parents.
All this Democratic radicalism might give Trump an opportunity to redeem himself. There ought to be a ferocious backlash against the obnoxious wokery that gives a cover to violence and criminality. Trump could try to imitate Richard Nixon’s successful law-and-order campaign after the race riots of 1968, and paint his enemies as agents of anarchy. He can point out that the most depraved rioting has taken place in areas run by Democrats for decades. Do people really want more of the same? Never underestimate his ability to turn failure into triumph. Unlike Nixon in ’68, how-ever, Trump has already had four years in the White House — and chaos has taken over. He might go down as the President who Made America Burn Again.
Freddy Gray and Kate Andrews discuss how the protests will impact this year’s election.