WASHINGTON — When Trump first addressed the nation as its president on Jan. 20, 2017, he depicted the nation’s cities as domestic combat zones and declared “this American carnage stops right here and stops right now.”
Back then, it was hyperbole at best. But it’s become reality on his watch, and he has encouraged further violence.
More than 100,000 Americans have lost their lives, and another 40 million their livelihoods, amid a coronavirus pandemic to which Trump was slow to react. Against that backdrop, cities across the country are now combustible cauldrons of fear, anger, fire and tear gas as Trump has responded to the violence with threats and little evidence of understanding its cause.
Since the police killing of George Floyd, a black man, in Minneapolis last week, Trump has largely thrown rhetorical Molotov cocktails over the front lines of the national uprising from the safety of his White House bunker.
In other words, the president met protests against state violence with calls for more of it.
He has threatened protesters in the park across the street from his home with “vicious dogs” and “ominous weapons,” suggested that looters in Minneapolis would be shot as he referred to protesters as “thugs,” and prepared the Pentagon to use military force against American citizens. Those words provide cover to other elected officials and law enforcement officers who are escalating rather than de-escalating confrontations, like the Minneapolis police who shot tear gas and rubber bullets at crowds Saturday.
Some political leaders are pleading with Trump to do no more harm, and with protesters not to give him the power to focus on their actions rather than those of police officers in Minneapolis and systemic injustice.
“There are times where you should just stop, and this is one of those times,” Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, a Democrat, said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” Sunday of Trump. “He’s making it worse. This is not about using military force. This is about where we are in America. We are beyond a tipping point in this country, and his rhetoric only inflames that, and he should sometimes just stop talking.”
On NBC’s Meet the Press, Bottoms said it’s fine for a president to address the American public, but “this president has a history of making matters worse.” She spoke specifically of his response to the fatal 2017 Charlottesville, Virginia, clash between white supremacists and counter-demonstrators, when Trump said there were “fine people” on “both sides.”
For the most part, political leaders at the local and state level say they are hoping to calm civil unrest in a turbulent moment.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, also a Democrat, said during a Sunday news conference that “violence never works” and that it distracts from the goals of the protesters.
“When you are violent, it creates a scapegoat to shift the blame,” Cuomo said. “It allows the president of the United States to tweet about looting rather than the murder by a police officer.”
It’s not just Democrats who wish Trump would refrain from roiling the boiling pot.
“Trump is far more divisive than past presidents — his strength is stirring up his base, not calming the waters,” said Dan Eberhart, a major Republican donor who lives in Arizona. “President Trump’s use of the word ‘thugs’ on Twitter may have expressed what some Americans were thinking but was ill-advised and could only serve to exacerbate the situation and weaken his credibility with the protesters.”
Some of the president’s tweets, said Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., on “Fox News Sunday,” were “not constructive tweets, without any question.”
Despite the president’s own escalation of the tensions, Trump is blaming anti-fascist activists known as “Antifa” for the outbreak of violence. Calling the members of the group “gutless Radical Left Wack Jobs,” he said in a Sunday tweet that Antifa will be declared a terrorist organization by his administration.
Likewise, Democrats have pointed their fingers at white supremacists, arguing that they are taking advantage of the conflict to fuel the conflagration.
But neither set is as influential as the president of the United States.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican who has criticized Trump over the federal response to coronavirus and other matters, said the president’s reaction to the protests has been counterproductive.
“It’s not lowering the temperature,” Hogan said on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday. “It’s sort of — it’s sort of continuing to escalate the rhetoric. And I think it’s just the opposite of the message that should have been coming out of the White House.”
Trump is realizing the “American carnage” he envisioned when his presidency began.