WASHINGTON ― After decades of cultivating racists, President Donald Trump continued his struggles trying to deal with the worst crisis in race relations in decades as he remained ― outside of a brief, tear-gas-enforced photo opportunity Monday at a damaged church ― bunkered in the White House.
“Most of you are weak,” Trump berated the nation’s governors on a video conference Monday, blaming them for not using violent enough tactics against protesters. “You have to dominate or you’ll look like a bunch of jerks. You have to arrest and try people.”
Monday evening, Trump finally addressed the situation with seven minutes of remarks from the Rose Garden ― of which exactly 17 seconds spoke of George Floyd, the Black man whose killing by a white police officer in Minneapolis has sparked the unrest across the country.
The rest of the speech featured promises to use “thousands and thousands of heavily armed soldiers” to end the nationwide protests. “I am your president of law and order,” he said, reading from teleprompters.
Afterward, he walked across Lafayette Park ― which law enforcement had cleared of peaceful protesters by using aggressive tactics and tear gas ― for a photo opportunity in which he held up a Bible for the cameras, even though it was after a 7 p.m. curfew had begun.
That curfew was imposed after three straight nights of demonstrations just beyond the fence surrounding the White House complex, with massive crowds of protesters intermixed with violent agitators while police responded with at times violent crowd control actions. White House staff responded Sunday evening by shutting off the lights that normally keep the official residence illuminated at night.
“Perfect symbolism. If ever the country needed the occupant of that building to shed light, and not heat, it is now,” said David Axelrod, a former top aide to Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama. “Sadly, that is not to be.”
The White House defended Trump’s handling of the protests, arguing that he had already addressed the topic as part of his speech following a rocket launch in Florida on Saturday. On Monday, press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told Fox News there was no need for a dedicated formal speech from the White House.
“A national Oval Office address is not going to stop antifa,” she said, referring to the loose collection of anarchists who frequently use protests as cover for vandalism and assault.
Given Trump’s track record both before and after becoming president, however, it is unclear what message of reconciliation he could credibly offer.
The first time Trump’s hometown paper of record mentioned his name was in 1973, when then-President Richard Nixon’s Justice Department accused his father and him of refusing to rent apartments to Black people. A decade and a half later, Trump crusaded for the death penalty for the Central Park Five following the rape of a jogger in Central Park, and he continued to do so even after they were exonerated. He rose to prominence within the GOP by becoming the loudest voice pushing the racist conspiracy theory that Obama was not born in the United States and was therefore an illegitimate president.
He’s wily enough to know he needs to say the right words once in a while about African Americans but also never abandons his true base and his true nature. Rick Wilson, Republican strategist
Since his election, Trump has referred to sub-Saharan African nations as “shithole” countries, hired so-called “alt-right” writers from Breitbart News to work at the White House and, most famously, declared that the torch-wielding marchers chanting racist and anti-Semitic slurs in Charlottesville, Virginia, included “very fine people.”
“He’s wily enough to know he needs to say the right words once in a while about African Americans but also never abandons his true base and his true nature,” said Rick Wilson, a GOP consultant who now works with The Lincoln Project, a group that released a television ad Sunday tying Trump to supporters of the Confederate flag.
Trump’s bunker mentality contrasted vividly with those of presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden as well as previous presidents, both Democratic and Republican.
In 2015, Obama spoke at a service for Black worshippers killed by white supremacist Dylann Roof at their church in South Carolina. In 1992, George H.W. Bush visited Los Angeles in the aftermath of protests against the acquittals of police officers in the beating of Rodney King. In 1970, even Richard Nixon — whose 1968 “Southern Strategy” campaign served as the blueprint for Republican candidate for the coming decades — met with demonstrators at the Lincoln Memorial.
And in the last few days, Biden has essentially taken over the leadership role that Trump has ceded. He visited a protest site in his hometown of Wilmington, Delaware, on Sunday and met with community leaders at a church there on Monday before convening a video conference call with mayors around the country.
Norman Ornstein, a scholar at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute, said the real problem is not Trump’s racist history, but something lacking in his psyche.
“If he had any empathy or the capacity to reach out and do what other presidents do as a matter of course, if he had gone on national television with the kind of address that Bush or Obama would give, reflecting an understanding of the outrage and pain but calling for calm, it would have been as effective as it would be for any of the others,” Ornstein said. “The problem is inherent to him.”
In any event, Trump seemed content with blaming antifa for the protests and tying Biden to the group.
“Sleepy Joe Biden’s people are so Radical Left that they are working to get the Anarchists out of jail, and probably more. Joe doesn’t know anything about it, he is clueless, but they will be the real power, not Joe. They will be calling the shots! Big tax increases for all, Plus!” he tweeted Monday morning.
The strategy is familiar for Trump. In 2016, with crime rates at a record low, Trump nevertheless claimed that violent crime was rampant and would surge further if Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton were to win. In 2018, he warned that a Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives would open the floodgates to undocumented immigration and turn the United States into Venezuela.
Trump’s campaign did not respond to HuffPost’s requests for comment. Biden’s campaign said Trump could learn a lesson or two from Obama’s former vice president.
“He’s not hiding with the lights off or rage-tweeting smears. He’s calling out injustice and condemning violence. He’s joining his neighbors on the streets and convening faith leaders in his own community. He’s hosting mayors on the front lines,” press secretary TJ Ducklo said. “This is what presidents do. It’s making Donald Trump feel insecure and threatened. And it should.”
After the initial publication of this article, a representative for Breitbart News contacted HuffPost to insist that neither it nor any of its former writers were alt-right.