With a nation on edge, ravaged by disease, hammered by economic collapse, divided over lockdowns and even face masks and now convulsed once again by race, President Donald Trump’s first instinct has been to look for someone to fight.
Over the past week, America reeled from 100,000 pandemic deaths, 40 million people out of work, and cities in flames over a brutal police killing of a subdued black man.
But Mr Trump was on the attack against China, the World Health Organisation, Big Tech, former president Barack Obama, a cable television host and the mayor of a riot-torn city.
While other presidents seek to cool the situation in tinderbox moments like this, Mr Trump plays with matches.
He roars into any melee he finds, encouraging street uprisings against public health measures advanced by his own government, hurling made-up murder charges against a critic, accusing his predecessor of unspecified crimes, vowing to crack down on a social media company that angered him, and then seemingly threatening to meet violence with violence in Minneapolis.
As several cities erupted in street protests after the killing of George Floyd, some of them resulting in clashes with police, Mr Trump made no appeal for calm.
The National Guard has arrived on the scene. They are in Minneapolis and fully prepared. George Floyd will not have died in vain. Respect his memory!!!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 29, 2020
Instead, in a series of tweets and comments to reporters on Saturday, he blamed the unrest on Democrats, called on “Liberal Governors and Mayors” to get “MUCH tougher” on the crowds, threatened to intervene with “the unlimited power of our Military” and even summoned his own supporters to mount a counterdemonstration.
Crossing State lines to incite violence is a FEDERAL CRIME! Liberal Governors and Mayors must get MUCH tougher or the Federal Government will step in and do what has to be done, and that includes using the unlimited power of our Military and many arrests. Thank you!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 30, 2020
The turmoil came right to Mr Trump’s doorstep on Friday night as hundreds of people protesting about Mr Floyd’s death – and the President’s response – gathered outside the White House.
Some threw bricks and bottles at Secret Service and US Park Police officers, who responded with pepper spray.
The image of the White House surrounded by police in riot gear fuelled the sense of a nation torn apart.
Mr Trump praised the Secret Service for being “very cool” and “very professional” but assailed the Democratic mayor of Washington for not providing city police officers to help.
While governors and mayors have urged restraint, Mr Trump seemed more intent on taunting the protesters, bragging about the violence that would have met them had they tried to get onto White House grounds.
“Big crowd, professionally organised, but nobody came close to breaching the fence,” the President wrote on Twitter.
“If they had they would have been greeted with the most vicious dogs, and most ominous weapons, I have ever seen. That’s when people would have been really badly hurt, at least. Many Secret Service agents just waiting for action.”
Great job last night at the White House by the U.S. @SecretService. They were not only totally professional, but very cool. I was inside, watched every move, and couldn’t have felt more safe. They let the “protesters” scream & rant as much as they wanted, but whenever someone….
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 30, 2020
His suggestion that his own supporters should come to the White House on Saturday foreshadowed the possibility of a clash outside his own doors.
“Tonight, I understand, is MAGA NIGHT AT THE WHITE HOUSE???” he wrote on Twitter, using the acronym for his first campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again”.
Asked about the tweet later, he denied encouraging violence by his supporters.
“They love African American people,” he said.
“They love black people. MAGA loves the black people.”
Mayor Muriel Bowser of Washington responded in kind on Saturday morning, saying her police department will protect anyone in Washington, including the President, but called him a source of division.
“While he hides behind his fence afraid/alone, I stand w/ people peacefully exercising their First Amendment Right after the murder of #GeorgeFloyd & hundreds of years of institutional racism,” she wrote.
“There are no vicious dogs & ominous weapons. There is just a scared man. Afraid/alone…”
While he hides behind his fence afraid/alone, I stand w/ people peacefully exercising their First Amendment Right after the murder of #GeorgeFloyd & hundreds of years of institutional racism
There are no vicious dogs & ominous weapons. There is just a scared man. Afraid/alone…
— Muriel Bowser #StayHomeDC Lite (@MurielBowser) May 30, 2020
Mr Trump tried to recalibrate later in the day, devoting the opening of a speech at the Kennedy Space Centre following the SpaceX rocket launch to the unrest in the streets and clearly trying to temper his bellicose tone.
“I understand the pain that people are feeling,” he said.
“We support the rights of peaceful protesters and we hear their pleas. But what we are now seeing on the streets of our cities has nothing to do with justice or peace. The memory of George Floyd is now being exploited by rioters, looters and anarchists.”
The days of discord have put the President’s leadership style on vivid display.
From the start of his ascension to power, Mr Trump has presented himself as someone who seeks conflict, not conciliation, a fighter, not a peacemaker.
That appeals to a substantial portion of the public that sees in him a president willing to take on an entrenched and entitled establishment.
But the confluence of perilous health, economic and now racial crises has tested his approach and left him struggling to find his footing just months before an election in which polls currently show him behind.
“The President seems more out of touch and detached from the difficult reality the country is living than ever before,” said Carlos Curbelo, a former Republican congressman from Florida who has been critical of Mr Trump.
“At a moment when America desperately needs healing, the President is focused on petty personal battles with his perceived adversaries.”
Such a moment would challenge any president, of course.
It has been a year of national trauma that started out feeling like another 1998 with impeachment, then another 1918 with a killer pandemic combined with another 1929 given the shattering economic fallout.
Now add to that another 1968, a year of deep social unrest.
It is fair to say that 2020 has turned out to be a year that has frayed the fabric of American society with an accumulation of anguish that has whipsawed the country and its people.
But in some ways, Mr Trump has become a totem for the nation’s polarisation rather than a mender of it.
“I am daily thinking about why and how a society unravels and what we can do to stop the process,” said Timothy Naftali, a presidential historian at New York University.
“The calamity these days is about more than Trump. He is just the malicious con man who lives to exploit our vulnerabilities.”
Mr Trump’s initial response to the rioting in Minneapolis, where a police officer has been charged with murder after kneeling on Mr Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes as he cried out that he could not breathe, underscored the President’s most instinctive response to national challenges.
Threatening to send in troops, he wrote early on Friday morning that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”.
Only after a cascade of criticism did he try to walk it back, posting a new tweet 13 hours later, suggesting that all he had meant was that “looting leads to shooting” by people in the street.
“I don’t want this to happen, and that’s what the expression put out last night means,” he said, a reformulation that convinced few, if any, of his critics.
But many of the President’s defenders rejected the idea that he had mishandled the crises, pressing the argument that Democrats and the news media were to blame for the turmoil in the streets, which spread from Minneapolis to New York, Atlanta, Washington, Louisville, Kentucky, Portland, Oregon and other cities.
“Keep track of cities where hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage and serious injuries and death will take place,” Rudy Giuliani, a former New York mayor who has served as Mr Trump’s personal lawyer, wrote on Twitter on Friday night.
“All Democrat-dominated cities with criminal-friendly policies. This is the future if you elect Democrats.”
Keep track of cities where hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage and serious injuries and death will take place.
All Democrat dominated cities with criminal friendly policies.
This is the future if you elect Democrats.
Send them a message, so they reform.
— Rudy W. Giuliani (@RudyGiuliani) May 30, 2020
Bernard Kerik, a former New York City police commissioner who was pardoned by Mr Trump for tax fraud earlier this year, amplified the point on Twitter.
“It should be no surprise that every one of these cities that the anarchist have taken over, are the same cities run by leftist Democrats with the highest violence, murder and poverty rates,” he wrote on Twitter.
“They can’t handle their cities normally, so how are they going to deal with this?”
It should be no surprise that every one of these cities that the anarchist have taken over, are the same cities run by leftist Democrats with the highest violence, murder and poverty rates. They can’t handle their cities normally, so how are they going to deal with this? https://t.co/BUJd3CpR3v
— Bernard B. Kerik (@BernardKerik) May 30, 2020
Mr Trump, who this past week retweeted a video of a supporter saying that “the only good Democrat is a dead Democrat” (though the supporter insisted he meant that in a political sense), picked up the theme on Friday night and again on Saturday morning.
After crowds attacked CNN’s Atlanta headquarters with rocks, the president offered no sympathy or condemnation.
Instead, he made clear he thought it was deserved payback for a network that has aggravated him so much, retweeting a message that said, “In an ironic twist of fate, CNN HQ is being attacked by the very riots they promoted as noble & just.”
–New York Times