WASHINGTON — In moments of racial, social and political unrest, presidents of the United States have almost always sought to calm the nation. Not President Donald Trump.
For him, there is political opportunity in pitting moderate whites against African Americans: They are the two groups Democratic challenger Joe Biden most needs to win the presidency in November, and they formed the core of Biden’s base as he pursued his party’s nomination.
That gave Trump incentive to articulate sympathy for George Floyd, the black man killed by police in Minneapolis on Monday, while also inciting racial conflict and promising to quell that conflict with force.
“These THUGS are dishonoring the memory of George Floyd, and I won’t let that happen,” Trump tweeted early Friday morning in response to Minneapolis uprisings following Floyd’s killing. “Just spoke to Governor Tim Walz and told him that the Military is with him all the way. Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
Biden’s need to mobilize black voters is evident both in the drop-off of black turnout between 2012 and 2016 in key swing states and his vetting of black women as potential vice presidential picks. He didn’t help himself when he said of African American voters who choose Trump over him, “you ain’t black,” on the radio show “The Breakfast Club.”
While Trump’s campaign strategy includes limiting enthusiasm for Biden among black voters, his remarks on the Minneapolis situation mostly reflect a need to persuade swing-voting whites.
“Trump won by flipping suburban white voters in 200 counties that Obama carried in both 2008 and 2012,” said Alvin Tillery, director of Northwestern University’s Center for the Study of Diversity and Democracy. “Although these voters display less racial resentment that Trump’s hardcore Southern base, it is still a part of their ideological makeup. It is also true that these voters are less likely to see the police as being at fault in cases of brutality.”
But there’s also a major risk that in promoting chaos, Trump will undermine his call for order at a time when one of the chief promises of the Biden campaign is to restore a sense of calm to the nation. The president could be seen as fomenting yet another national crisis in the midst of a pandemic that has killed more than 100,000 people and led to 40 million unemployment claims.
In the span of fewer than 280 characters, Trump defended the “memory of George Floyd,” who was blameless in his own death, called protesters “thugs” — a term as racially loaded as any — and suggested he would order the military to summarily execute looters. The latter claim suggests not only that theft should be punishable by death but that the purpose of the uprising is to steal.
Perhaps in reaction…