In his first Inaugural Address, and hopefully his last, Donald Trump talked about American carnage. He got it last week. What we couldn’t have known in January 2017 is that he wasn’t here to save us from this carnage, but to perpetuate it; that incitement wasn’t just a feature of his campaign, but of his governance. When historians look back at the Trump era, they may very well say his presidency was encapsulated by this moment, when a sadistic cop knelt on the neck of an African American man in plain view for almost 9 minutes and the streets exploded in rage.
Derek Chauvin was by no means the first cop to gratuitously brutalize and lynch an African American. But he embodied something essential about Trumpism: It’s us versus them. That’s the poison ethos at the heart of police brutality, and it’s the septic core of our 45th president’s philosophy. Neither a toxic cop nor Donald Trump sees himself as a servant of all the people they’ve sworn to protect. They are solely servants of their own. Everyone else is the enemy.
From the beginning, the police have received a lot of perverse messages from Trump, encouraging them to embrace the bitter angels of their nature. Three summers ago, he gave a speech on Long Island, disparaging officers who cradled the heads of suspects as they tucked them into their squad cars: “You can take the hand away, OK?” (A bank of cops, seated behind him, started to laugh and cheer.)
One of Trump’s most revealing tweets since the rioting began was a boast about the prowess of the Secret Service — and to threaten to sic “the most vicious dogs, and most ominous weapons” on the crowds outside the White House if things intensified. He’s Bull Connor with a comb-over. Or Walter E. Headley, Miami’s former police chief, who in 1967 said, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” a phrase that reappeared in a Trump tweet Friday.
And this is the point, is it not? Trump, who made his political bones by peddling apocrypha about our first African American president’s country of origin, thrives on racial divisions. Us-them. Conflict zones are his comfort zone, perfect for firing up his base.
But the pressures of this historic moment proved to be too much. We can’t see the African Americans who are dying in disproportionate numbers inside our hospitals, but we can see George Floyd, an African American, cruelly singled out for asphyxiation in the street. His death in police custody is a potent symbol of the obscene inequality and racial hostility of this moment, with the police officer as Trump’s smirking and pitiless proxy. African Americans — and many whites, too — were so enraged that they poured out into the streets to protest, even in the midst of a pandemic, even though African Americans are most at risk in this pandemic.
A month from now, it’s quite likely many will end up in hospitals, once again in disproportionate numbers. It’s too awful to contemplate.
And once again, there’s a leadership vacuum in response to the chaos, just as there is with COVID-19. It’s every state for itself, with Trump trolling the most liberal leaders for their supposed failures to contain the unrest.
How these protests devolved into violence across the country will be the subject of analysis for years to come. For now, what has riveted me is that somehow, in spite of the dystopian horror unfolding in front of us, in spite of execrable responses from some of the largest police forces in the country (including New York City’s), we’re nonetheless hearing talk of America as a perfectible place — of the arc still bending. It’s been more than three years since we’ve heard that tune.
Yet there was Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, issuing a wee-hours statement that asked Americans not to ignore their pain, but to use it “to compel our nation across this turbulent threshold into the next phase of progress, inclusion, and opportunity.” There was Killer Mike, the rapper from Atlanta, reminding his fellow citizens, “Atlanta’s not perfect, but we’re a lot better than we ever were, and a lot better than cities are.”
Conservatives will focus on the pleas for law and order in their messages. But what I hear is a repudiation of Trumpian nihilism — a rejection of the tyranny of the perpetual “anxious present” that Masha Gessen describes in her forthcoming book “Surviving Autocracy.” They’re instead speaking with what Gessen calls “moral ambition,” inviting fellow citizens to build a more expansive country, rather than an us-versus-them one. Their messages weren’t, “Don’t destroy your community,” so much as, “There’s a still community left for you to join. Come and make it better.”
And so, along with terrifying imagery of fire and fury, we also saw images over the weekend of police officers and protesters marching together. The bonds were sometimes fragile, only to later disappear. But they happened. In Flint, Michigan. In Camden, New Jersey. In Coral Gables, Florida. In Santa Clara, California. In Ferguson, Missouri. In Kansas City, Missouri, where two cops, one white, held aloft a sign saying “End Police Brutality.”
Or listen to the chief of police in Atlanta, Erika Shields, tell an anxious protester, “I hear you.” When Trump met with those who’d lost loved ones in the Parkland shooting, he needed an empathy cheat sheet that contained those very words; it was item No. 5. For her, they simply spilled out, as naturally as rain.
Jennifer Senior is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.