Earlier this month, armed white protesters bearing Confederate flags and semiautomatic rifles strode through the halls of Michigan’s capitol building to challenge the state’s stay-at-home order. State lawmakers, fearing violence, canceled their legislative session to defuse the crisis. President Donald Trump sympathized with those who sought to intimidate the legitimate government of an American state. “The Governor of Michigan should give a little, and put out the fire,” he wrote on Twitter. “These are very good people, but they are angry. They want their lives back again, safely! See them, talk to them, make a deal.”
The president struck a different tone toward another outburst of civil unrest on Thursday night. Protesters in Minneapolis set a police precinct building on fire as demonstrations over the police killing of George Floyd intensified. Floyd’s brutal death at the hands of four local police officers, which was captured by footage from a bystander, drew condemnation from across the political spectrum, including from Trump himself. But while other political leaders urged calm on Thursday night, Trump sought to make things worse.
“I can’t stand back & watch this happen to a great American City, Minneapolis. A total lack of leadership,” he wrote. “Either the very weak Radical Left Mayor, Jacob Frey, get his act together and bring the City under control, or I will send in the National Guard & get the job done right.” He went on: “These THUGS are dishonoring the memory of George Floyd, and I won’t let that happen.” Trump added, “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. Thank you!” (Trump claimed on Friday, somewhat unpersuasively, that this was a mere statement of fact instead of a threat.)
Trump, like many weak men, sees threats and acts of physical violence as a means to project strength. His combative personality is not a healthy way for any adult man to live, something that Trump himself once seemed to acknowledge. “It makes me feel so good to hit ‘sleazebags’ back—much better than seeing a psychiatrist (which I never have!),” he boasted on Twitter in November 2012. It would be nice to have a president whose instinctual response to a crisis is reducing tensions instead of fueling them, but the United States is not so lucky right now.
Trump’s phrase on looting and shooting isn’t even his own creation. It can be traced back to Walter Headley, who drew national attention during his tenure as Miami’s police chief in the 1960s. Headley often clashed with civil rights leaders over his harsh policing tactics—including dogs, shotguns, and stop-and-frisk policies—in African American neighborhoods under his jurisdiction. “This is war,” he proclaimed in 1967. “We haven’t had any serious problems with civil uprisings and looting because I’ve let the word filter down that when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
It’s no surprise that Trump embraced this kind of rhetoric once more. His rise through public life to the White House is fueled by stoking racist sentiments among white Americans. During his presidential tenure, the most visible examples of this animus have been his actions toward Hispanic and Muslim immigrants. But from full-page ads, in the 1990s, demanding the death penalty for the Central Park Five, who were later found to be innocent, to falsely claiming Barack Obama wasn’t actually born in the U.S. for most of the last decade, his opportunistic diatribes have frequently targeted black Americans.
That animus also came with an unflinching support for police officers. On the campaign trail in 2015, Trump told a New England police union that he would issue an executive order to mandate the death penalty for suspected cop killers if elected president. “One of the first things I’d do in terms of executive order if I win would be to sign a strong, strong statement that will go out to the country, out to the world, that anybody caught killing a policeman, policewoman, police officer, anybody killing a police officer: death penalty,” he said. “It’s gonna happen. OK? We can’t let this go.” Such an executive order would be unconstitutional in at least three or four different ways, but Trump rarely acts with the Constitution in mind.
From time to time, Trump tries to act as if he were some different sort of person. In recent months, his campaign has worked to court black voters, ahead of the November elections, hoping to capitalize on former Vice President Joe Biden’s flawed record on criminal justice and other issues to weaken the Democrat’s support among black voters. The strategy already worked well for him in 2016: Though black voters preferred Hillary Clinton over Trump by a 9-to-1 ratio, black turnout also fell far below its levels under Barack Obama. That decline helped give Trump an edge in Midwestern battleground states and propelled him to a narrow Electoral College victory.
But the president can rarely suppress his own worst instincts for long. What stands out about Trump’s remarks on Thursday night isn’t just the racism that animates them but also his reflexive support for violence and bloodshed—at least when it’s directed at the right people. Last fall, he regularly described the House’s impeachment inquiry as a “coup d’état” and favorably quoted supporters who warned it could lead to “civil war.” The implicit threat was that constitutional attempts to remove him from office were both illegitimate and tantamount to violence and that his supporters would be justified by responding in kind if they succeeded.
In recent days, Trump raised the specter of violence against his political opponents once more. He shared a video clip to his Twitter followers on Thursday in which a county commission in New Mexico claims that the “only good Democrat is a dead Democrat.” He also warned that if mail-in-ballot usage became widespread, it would lead to “MASSIVE FRAUD AND ABUSE” as well as “THE END OF OUR GREAT REPUBLICAN PARTY.” Thursday night showed that Trump is willing to demand bloodshed against Americans in a matter where he has nothing at stake. The implications for a November election, where he may lose the presidency, could not be darker.