The gravest civil unrest in half a century is piling pressure on a president who has usually been more adept at exploiting America’s divisions than healing them.
Protests sparked by the death of George Floyd a week ago in Minneapolis have touched at least 75 cities.
Throughout the weekend, cable news broadcasts showed near-constant footage of disorder. Viewers saw gratuitously aggressive policing, nihilistic vandalism on the part of some protestors and everything in between.
The nation hoped for some respite Monday, with no clear sense of whether the strife would recede or ratchet up.
For President TrumpDonald John TrumpDonald Trump and Joe Biden create different narratives for the election The hollowing out of the CDC Poll: Biden widens lead over Trump to 10 points MORE, the turmoil is the latest wave in the sea of troubles that now encircles his reelection hopes.
The coronavirus crisis has claimed more than 100,000 American lives and is the worst public health disaster in a century.
Widespread lockdowns in response to the threat of COVID-19 have catapulted the nation’s unemployment rate past the highest levels seen during the Great Recession a decade ago. Unemployment was at historic lows earlier this year.
Now racial tension — the deepest and rawest wound in American life — has exploded with greater velocity than at any time since 1968, a year that saw the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, as well as riots during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
The tensions and frustrations are further inflamed by the fact that minority communities have been hit disproportionately hard by the coronavirus and its related economic damage.
An NPR analysis of data collected by the COVID Racial Tracker found African American deaths from the COVID-19 disease are almost twice as great as might be expected based on their share of the population. The unemployment rate for Africa Americans shot up to 16.7 percent.
To his critics, Trump is uniquely ill-suited to such a febrile moment.
They recall his history of incendiary comments — a record that stretches back as far as his call for the death penalty for the Central Park Five, encompasses his promotion of ‘birther’ conspiracies against former President Obama, and reached a nadir with his response to racist violence in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017.
The president’s defenders insist he is unfairly maligned on race relations.
They cite historically low levels of black unemployment — at least until the coronavirus crisis hit — as well as his support for HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities) and his support for so-called “opportunity zones” intended to draw investment to marginalized communities.
Trump also successfully pushed for the passage of significant criminal justice reform legislation in late 2018.
But the case for the president’s defense could easily be capsized by his habitual fondness for inflammatory rhetoric.
On Sunday, he tweeted that Democratic mayors and governors needed to “get tough” with protestors whom he derided as anarchists. “The World is watching and laughing at you and Sleepy Joe,” he added, using his favorite derogatory nickname for Joe BidenJoe BidenDonald Trump and Joe Biden create different narratives for the election Poll: Biden widens lead over Trump to 10 points Biden: ‘We are a nation in pain, but we must not allow this pain to destroy us’ MORE, his likely Democratic opponent in November’s general election.
The previous day, Trump had insisted to reporters at the White House that “MAGA loves the black people!” The phrase was widely criticized as crass.
Earlier that day, he had tweeted about “the most vicious dogs and ominous weapons” that would face any protestors who sought to breach security at the White House.
All of those remarks came in the shadow of a tweet sent just before 1a.m. Friday, in which Trump predicted “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
The phrase dates back to a hardline Miami police chief in the late 1960s, but Trump later insisted that he was not calling for the shooting of protestors.
Instead, he argued, he meant to emphasize that “looting leads to shooting…I don’t want this to happen and that’s what the expression put out last night means.”
During a speech Saturday, Trump expressed sympathy with Floyd’s family.
“We support the right 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 with peace. The memory of George Floyd is being dishonored by rioters, looters and anarchists,” Trump said.
Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, died after a white police officer dug his knee into his neck for several minutes, despite Floyd’s pleas that he was struggling to breathe.
The officer, Derek Chauvin, has been charged with third-degree murder. Three other officers who were present have been fired but do not face any criminal charges as yet.
Even some Republican have expressed unease with Trump’s rhetoric.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R), speaking on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday, asserted “It’s not lowering the temperature. 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.”
Sen. Tim ScottTimothy (Tim) Eugene ScottGOP Sen. Tim Scott calls for the arrest of other officers involved in Floyd death Sunday shows preview: Leaders weigh in as country erupts in protest over George Floyd death Mississippi mayor defends officers in George Floyd’s death: ‘If you can talk, you can breathe’ MORE (R-S.C.), the sole black Republican in the Senate, was asked during an appearance on “Fox News Sunday” about the tweets in which Trump talked about dogs and weapons defending the White House, and about looting and shooting.
“Those are not constructive tweets, without any question,” Scott said.
The message from Democrats has been more emphatic.
“He should just stop talking,” Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms (D) said, also on “State of the Union.” “He speaks and he makes it worse. There are times when you should just be quiet, and I wish that he would just be quiet.”
In a Washington Post op-ed, former Rep. Donna EdwardsDonna F. EdwardsDemocratic Senate candidate blasts own party for racial ‘foghorn’ Autoworkers’ union endorsing Van Hollen in MD Senate race Dem leaders’ hard sell pays off on omnibus MORE (D-Md.) lamented, “I keep wishing for a president who can give the anger of African Americans a voice. Instead, the president we have wallows in and feeds on division and racial hatred.”
There is always the chance that events could turn in Trump’s favor, politically speaking.
Further instances of rioting and looting could yet make some moderate white voters warm to his hard-edged rhetoric. Racial polarization, grim though it is, is not necessarily an electoral loser for the president.
But for now, Trump must lead a nation riven with tension, distrust and rage. Given his past and present comments, many voters seem unlikely to give him the benefit of the doubt.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.