As nation reels, Trump’s focus is strength, not unity

Why We Wrote This

Beset by an unprecedented series of crises – from the pandemic and economic catastrophe to unrest over racial disparity – President Donald Trump has made little effort to strike a note of healing.

Patrick Semansky/AP
President Donald Trump holds a Bible as he poses outside St. John's Church across Lafayette Park from the White House June 1, 2020, in Washington. Part of the historic church was set on fire during protests on Sunday night. Before the president made his walk on Monday to the church, police cleared peaceful protesters from the area using chemical agents.

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After days of looting and mayhem in cities around the country, Tuesday night’s protests were largely peaceful. But the nation remains on edge, with President Donald Trump struggling to get his bearings amid multiple profound challenges. 

Mr. Trump has largely eschewed the more traditional forms of unity-building. Instead, he has sought to reinforce his image as a “law and order” president, with tough talk and threats to deploy federal troops across the country. With his job approval numbers sagging enough to endanger reelection, Mr. Trump is doing what he knows best: going on the offensive. 

Perhaps the most brazen moment so far of this extraordinary period came Monday, when federal law enforcement officers used chemical sprays to clear peaceful protesters from Lafayette Park, across from the White House, so that Mr. Trump could walk over to historic St. John’s Church. The church’s basement had been briefly set ablaze the night before, and Mr. Trump’s decision to pose outside it while holding up a Bible was widely decried as tone-deaf. 

“His only strategy is to disrupt, and anything he can disrupt he will,” says Shirley Anne Warshaw, a presidential scholar at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. 

“This American carnage stops right here and stops right now,” President Donald Trump famously asserted at his 2017 inauguration.

Mothers and children are “trapped in poverty in our inner cities,” rusted-out factories are “scattered like tombstones,” crime and gangs and drugs have “stolen too many lives,” the new president darkly intoned, eschewing the call to unity that is the usual hallmark of an inaugural address.  

At a moment of relative peace and prosperity – the nation was already years into a historic period of economic recovery – the dystopian image seemed jarring to many. Still, the speech was classic Trump, fitting for a man elected to shake up a system that had alienated far too many Americans. 

Today, however, his words have the feel of foreshadowing for a United States laid low by pandemic, economic catastrophe, and massive social unrest over racial disparity.  

To be sure, no one could have predicted what was to come in 2020 – not least President Trump himself – just months before the nation decides whether to give him four more years. The pandemic, in particular, knows no politics or boundaries. But in his response to the events that have transpired, Mr. Trump has set himself apart in the pantheon of American presidents for his seeming unwillingness even to try to unite a nation in distress. 

Gen. James Mattis, Mr. Trump’s former Defense secretary, denounced the president’s approach in a statement published Wednesday by the Atlantic magazine. “Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people – does not even pretend to try,” wrote General Mattis. “Instead, he tries to divide us.”

“Law and order” president

Past presidents, even controversial ones like Richard Nixon, “tried to put on a good face” in moments of national or international strife, says David Greenberg, a historian at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. But “there’s a sense in America right now, more than any time I can remember, of just things falling apart and an absence of leadership in the White House,” he adds. 

Mr. Trump has voiced sympathy for George Floyd, the black man whose death in Minneapolis police custody last week sparked nationwide protests and lawlessness. The president spoke of the Floyd tragedy at length in remarks last weekend after the successful SpaceX launch. 

But Mr. Trump has not engaged in the more traditional forms of unity-building, such as an address to the nation. Instead, he has sought to reinforce his image as a “law and order” president, flooding the Twitterverse with tough talk and threatening to deploy federal troops across the country after berating “weak” governors for failing to control the streets. 

Defense Secretary Mark Esper broke with Mr. Trump Wednesday and said that he does not support invoking the Insurrection Act, a rarely used 1807 statute that the president could use to deploy active-duty troops on American soil. But he left open the possibility that such forces could be deployed if the situation grew worse, “as a matter of last resort and only in the most urgent and dire situations.” 

Perhaps the most brazen moment so far of this extraordinary period came Monday, when federal law enforcement officers swept through Lafayette Park, across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, using rubber pellets and chemical sprays to clear away largely peaceful protesters.

The reason: Mr. Trump’s decision to walk to historic St. John’s Church, located on the far side of the park, and hold up a Bible. The church’s basement had been briefly set ablaze the night before, a moment of horror captured on live television. Though applauded by his supporters, the visit was widely decried by many others – including church leaders – as a tone-deaf photo op that featured a lineup of top aides who are all white.

But actions such as the aggressive clearing of Lafayette Park, which was reportedly ordered by Attorney General William Barr, are in keeping with the president’s style. 

“His only strategy is to disrupt, and anything he can disrupt he will,” says Shirley Anne Warshaw, a presidential scholar at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. 

After looting and mayhem in cities around the country on Monday night, Tuesday night’s protests were largely peaceful. But the nation remains on edge, with a president struggling to get his bearings amid multiple profound challenges, any of which on its own would try a chief executive. 

His presidency at a critical juncture, with job approval numbers sagging enough to endanger reelection, Mr. Trump is doing what he knows best: going on the offensive. 

For Mr. Trump, a big fear is appearing weak, say political analysts and those who know him. When reports came out that the Secret Service had briefly moved him Friday night to the bunker under the White House, as protests flared outside, a thousand unflattering memes were launched. On Wednesday, the president denied that he went to the bunker to protect his safety but rather said he was there to do “a short inspection.” 

Sometimes Mr. Trump’s efforts to appear strong end up backfiring. Last Friday, when he tweeted “looting leads to shooting” and warned that “vicious dogs” would greet any protesters who breach the White House fence, he – whether intentionally or not – conjured painful images of the civil rights era and before that, slavery. The “looting-shooting” comment echoed the words of Miami’s aggressive police chief in 1967. Dogs were deployed to attack black protesters in the 1960s, and before that, slaves. 

In the eyes of Florida Democratic Rep. Val Demings, an African American and former Orlando police chief who is on presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden's short list for a running mate, the president’s incendiary tweeting amounts to “walking around with gasoline.”

But he’s remained undaunted in his use of Twitter, issuing a flood of tweets defending his record on race.  

“My Admin has done more for the Black Community than any President since Abraham Lincoln,” begins a tweet from Tuesday pinned at the top of his account.

A projection of strength

The pandemic has shattered the Trump economy, until recently his strongest argument for reelection. Though strongly Democratic, the African American vote had been seen as fertile ground by the Trump campaign, with hopes of peeling off just enough black voters in key states to keep Mr. Biden at bay.  

Now, Mr. Trump is doubling down on law and order. His threat to use the Insurrection Act, though apparently now receding as a possibility, has renewed discussion about how he relates to the states within the American federalist system. Mr. Trump often defers responsibility to governors, such as in the acquisition of medical supplies to fight the coronavirus, but also projects power by threatening the use of an old law that would boost his image of strength.

“There’s a reason we don’t send our federal troops internally,” says Thaddeus Hoffmeister, a law professor at the University of Dayton. “Only in extreme cases do you want one person in control of everything.” 

In most of the incidents in the 1960s when the act was invoked, the governors had requested help. “That’s not the case here,” he says.

Professor Hoffmeister suggests there may be rhetorical value for the president in labeling the unrest an “insurrection,” but “I don’t recall an insurrection where law enforcement actually takes knees with so-called insurrectionists.” 

William Banks, a professor emeritus of law at Syracuse University, says Mr. Trump has the right to invoke the law, but notes that it was envisioned for a much larger threat than what we’re seeing now. 

“You want to come to the aid of the states when states can’t take care of themselves,” he says. 

By threatening to invoke the act, Mr. Trump is trying not to appear weak during a domestic crisis, says Professor Banks. But at the same time, he adds, past uses of the law have been unpopular, and governors in crisis-ridden states today might welcome having Mr. Trump seize the spotlight – and take on any blame. 

The danger for Mr. Trump, as he surveys a nation under siege from many directions, is that he may look increasingly small.

“The fact that he stopped having the daily briefings is a very good example of his shrinking presidency,” says George Edwards, a presidential scholar at Texas A&M University. “He has nothing to say – no proposals, no empathy.” 

Still, despite everything, it’s far too early to discount Mr. Trump’s chances of winning reelection.  

Trump biographer Gwenda Blair is reminded of Mr. Trump’s period of intense acquisition in the 1980s, when he took on a giant yacht, a football team, an airline, the Plaza Hotel, and three casinos in Atlantic City.

“It was all in pursuit of making that brand as big as possible, a juggernaut, and he’d be able to ride over anything,” Ms. Blair says. 

By the end of the decade, Mr. Trump was headed for multiple rounds of corporate bankruptcy. But with the help of the banks, he still came out on top. 

“It worked,” Ms. Blair says. “You tell people what they want to hear, and they’ll follow you.” 

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