Donald Trump has not had a great year. It started with an impeachment trial, then a pandemic, and now widespread demonstrations against police brutality toward Black Americans. But hardly anyone protested outside the White House until this week.
The president himself had no direct involvement with the murder of George Floyd, but it makes sense that Black Lives Matter protests would surge under Trump’s watch.
He founded his political career on white identity politics, with his 1989 call for the execution of the Central Park Five, his questioning of President Barack Obama’s birthplace, his frequent invocation of “law and order,” his 2017 claim there were “very fine people” among white supremacist protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, and of course, his constant attacks on immigrants.
The Black Lives Matter movement, sparked by police murdering Black people, predates Trump’s presidency by several years, but the president personifies the kind of systemic racism the movement has always decried.
“He’s just shown blatantly over and over again that he’s a racist,” said Ashley Ezekieva, a 23-year-old protesting outside the White House on Thursday evening. “From Obama to the Central Park Five, he’s shown over and over again that he does not like Black or brown people.”
Overt anti-Black racism has been taboo in American politics for some time, which is why Trump still maintains that he’s “done more for the Black Community than any President since Abraham Lincoln.” He’s pointed to a criminal justice reform bill and a historically low unemployment rate for Black people, even though it remained nearly twice as high as the rate for white people ― at least until both unemployment rates skyrocketed in April.
But racial resentment has remained a powerful political tool, one that Trump has harnessed more effectively than his recent Republican predecessors.
“From Obama to the Central Park Five, he’s shown over and over again that he does not like Black or brown people.”
One way researchers try to evaluate voters’ motivations is by looking at their voting patterns and studying their answers to survey questions on political topics. One such question, asked as part of the Annual National Election Studies, asks people how much they agree with the statement that “if blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as whites.” The more strongly someone agrees with statements like that one, the more “racially conservative” they are.
More than any other factor ― education, income, fear of missing a house payment ― voters’ racism correlated with their support for Trump, and the correlation was stronger than it had been for any candidate in the previous two elections, according to the 2018 book “Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America” by political scientists John Sides, Michael Tesler and Lynn Vavreck.
While many white Obama voters had racist views, far fewer such voters supported Hillary Clinton in 2016, with Trump making it very clear he was on their side.
Using a mountain of polling data, Sides, Tesler and Vavreck found stronger evidence for the racial grievance explanation of the electoral outcome in 2016 than for economic anxiety, Russian meddling, or the FBI’s investigation into Clinton’s emails.
“The activation of racial issues helped Trump because there were so many Obama voters whose views on these issues were arguably closer to Trump’s than to Obama’s or Clinton’s ― and these voters were especially prevalent in battleground states,” the trio of researchers wrote.
The mass protests could put Trumpism to a serious test. The president has urged police to come down hard on protesters, and now there’s an endless highlight reel of cops brutalizing people in the way Black Lives Matter activists have always said they do.
“Trump, in his long-standing rhetoric and in his immediate response to the protests, has clearly demonstrated that the problem rises to the highest levels of American government,” said Vanessa Williamson, a scholar of public opinion with the Brookings Institution.
In a 2018 paper, Williamson and co-authors Kris-Stella Trump and Katherine Levine Einstein found that “Black Lives Matter protests are more likely to occur in localities where more Black people have previously been killed by police.” They counted more than 780 protests in the year after the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
White Americans nowadays are more likely to say Black people have been treated unfairly than they were when Richard Nixon won the White House with a “law and order” campaign in 1968. One tracking poll from a Democratic-affiliated firm even found that as of last month, more white people support than oppose Black Lives Matter. (Recent polls also show a modest decline in Trump’s overall approval rating.)
Nevertheless, Trump and other Republicans have tarred the protests as havens for terrorists intent on destroying property.
“I want the organizers of this terror to be on notice that you will face severe criminal penalties and lengthy sentences in jail,” the president said in a speech from the White House this week. “This includes antifa and others who are leading instigators of this violence.”
It’s possible that Trump could turn the narrative into a referendum on respecting the flag and defunding police departments. “But so long as the focus remains on ruptured race relations and remedying glaring police brutality and discrimination against African Americans, it’s a big loser for Trump,” said Tesler, an associate professor of political science at the University of California, Irvine.
Several protesters told HuffPost this week that Trump’s “law and order” rhetoric has been inflammatory.
“It’s just kind of like we have a figure that usually uses his voice for hate,” said Natalie, a 24-year-old from Arlington, Virginia. “Having that as a leader just doesn’t help at all. And right now, all I see is just mutual hate everywhere.”
Raphael, a 25-year-old from Alexandria, Virginia, said Trump emboldens people who don’t like Black Lives Matter. “They’re like, ‘Hey, we got a leader, we’re good, like he’s gonna keep us protected,’” he said.
Ezekieva and two friends drove more than two hours to Washington from Snow Hill, Maryland, on Thursday after previously attending a small protest in Ocean City, Maryland.
“This stuff would still be happening, but just the things he’s been saying in general is just making the whole situation worse ― he’s escalating it,” Ezekieva said.
“‘Shut up and die’ is basically what we’re being told, and we’re tired of it,” she said. “I’m doing this today so the next generation doesn’t have to do it, because our parents and grandparents did it so we didn’t have to do it, but here we are today. There needs to be bigger change.”