On June 1, Donald Trump, the failed businessman who became president by pretending to be a successful businessman on reality TV, decided to tear-gas peaceful protesters in search of a photo op. With no apparent provocation, federal police assaulted a crowd of people staging a nonviolent protest in Lafayette Park, adjacent to the White House, unleashing tear gas on the crowd and laying into them with batons and rubber bullets. Soon it became clear why this was happening: Trump wanted his picture taken in front of St. John's Episcopal Church, and wanted a clear path to walk across the park.
But it was more than that: Trump also wanted images of people fleeing from paramilitary cops to air directly opposite the speech he gave just before his stroll, one in which the president claimed that "our nation has been gripped by professional anarchists, violent mobs or arsonists, looters, criminals, rioters, antifa and others" and that he was "mobilizing all federal resources, civilian and military, to stop the rioting and looting."
In other words, Trump and his aides apparently believed that chaotic images of cops crushing a peaceful protest would look, at least on TV, like proof of Trump's characterization of the largely peaceful protests as "riots" being run by dangerous "anarchists."
This gambit grossly backfired. Reporters on the scene saw with their own eyes that the protest had been peaceful, and the only people who could legitimately said to be "rioting" were the cops. Trump wanted to look tough but wound up looking weak and cowardly, a man so afraid of being heckled he hides behind a phalanx of RoboCops. Even the photo-op went sideways: Trump looked especially awkward with a Bible perched precipitously on his stubby fingers, in a manner suggesting he'd never seen or held a book before.
But Trump, never one to admit a mistake, has not given up on his belief that unleashing military-style assaults on peaceful protesters is just the thing needed to reinvigorate his campaign. He's sent federal police — armed to the hilt and clad in camo, to maximize the appearance of being in invading army — into Portland, Oregon, to terrorize and assault people gathered peacefully in the streets. (Even the mayor of Portland, Ted Wheeler, got tear-gassed while doing nothing more sinister than standing in a peaceful crowd, chatting with protesters.) Now Trump has said he'll send more federal goons to Chicago and Alburquerque, New Mexico, all against the express wishes of local and state leaders, who point out that federal police, not protesters, are staging confrontations that become violent. He has suggested he may expand this domestic invasion to other cities across the country.
In a press conference on Wednesday, Trump tried to justify all this by claiming we're witnessing "a shocking explosion of shootings, killings, murders and heinous crimes of violence."
Like most things Trump says, this is an outright lie. FBI crime statistics show that overall crime is down by 5.3% since last year. It's true that murder rates have ticked upward in many places from the historic lows of the last few years. Experts interviewed by the New York Times suggest that the protests have nothing to do with it, and that it's a result of the enormous disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic, which has heightened stress, leading both to increased domestic violence and more heated disputes within the illegal drug trade.
As usual, Trump is lying about more than just the statistics. He's also lying about his intentions. He isn't doing any of this to keep people safe. If he cared one whit about the safety of Americans, he would focus his energy on fighting the coronavirus, not on staging violent confrontations with largely peaceful protesters. If he cared about reducing violence, he wouldn't be causing more of it by sending cops to attack demonstrators. If he really cared about "law and order," he wouldn't be deliberately inducing chaos in the streets.
No, all this is about one thing and one thing only: The reality-TV president wants to create a spectacle for the cameras, one he thinks will get him re-elected.
That's why Trump went to Tulsa to hold a rally near the site of one of worst racial pogroms in American history, on a weekend usually known for celebrating Black people's emancipation from slavery: He hoped the provocation would lead to a violent clash between protesters and police. (It didn't.)
Trump is playing the role of the world's worst TV director, one who is using taxpayer money to inflict real pain and suffering on people who didn't consent to play a part in his BDSM-themed cable drama aimed at viewers with a tear-gas kink. All for the purpose of generating B-roll footage of flash-bangs and clouds of gas and armored police and black-clad protesters to be featured in heavy rotation on Fox News and in campaign ads.
As Oregon Gov. Kate Brown explained on MSNBC, when Chad Wolf, the acting Homeland Security secretary, visited Portland recently, "he brought a Fox News team with him for a photo opportunity." Unsurprisingly, that network is playing the role of Trump's eager editor, presenting the Portland footage in misleading ways, and amplifying his lies about the protesters.
The one sticky problem for Trump's artistic vision is that everyone outside the Fox News bubble can see that the protests have been overwhelmingly peaceful, and that the president who's sending in poorly trained, amped-up federal cops is the one stoking violence and chaos. Trump is doing all this to get images of "violent" protests, but what he's mostly getting is images of cops attacking a row of middle-aged women who are singing lullabies (that's no exaggeration). As with the Lafayette Park incident back in early June, it's obvious who the real instigator of violence is.
Trump's campaign is so desperate for images of street violence that it literally borrowed a photo of protesters attacking a uniformed soldier — a photo taken in Ukraine in 2014 — and tried to pass it off as an image from recent American protests.
Trump's gut-level certainty that (white) Americans yearn for more images of cops beating or attacking protesters is, like most things Trump feels sure about, entirely wrong. The most recent polling data from earlier this month shows that 62% of Americans believe that Trump's handling of the protests has made the situation worse. When it comes to non-Republicans, that figure rises to 8 in 10 Americans. Trump is wasting taxpayer money and unleashing harm on U.S. citizens solely for the purpose of activating the worst impulses of the most racist and paranoid members of his base — people who were already going to vote for him, no matter.
Of course, Fox News — whose hysterical coverage no doubt inspired Trump to ramp up his autocratic crackdown in the first place — is backing him to the hilt, as are many of the Republicans running for election down-ballot from this historically unpopular president. That seems like a dumb move, likely to alienate any voters who weren't already on board, but then again, what else do they have? With the coronavirus pandemic raging out of control and the economy in the toilet, Republicans certainly can't claim they've done a competent job and deserve to keep on doing it. Violence and racism may not be a winning message in this year of historic turmoil and change, but at this point, it's all Trump and his party have left.