The violence across the nation over George Floyd's death already has bloomed, so it is too late to nip it in the bud. And by this point, President Donald Trump may lack the credibility to make Americans believe that he's steering the nation through the crisis.
There is always a tweet, as his critics like to say. "Our country is totally fractured and, with our weak leadership in Washington, you can expect Ferguson type riots and looting in other places," Trump tweeted in November 2014 after a police killing of an unarmed African American man sparked disturbances. "As China and the rest of the World continue to rip off the U.S. economically, they laugh at us and our president over the riots in Ferguson!"
One key question is what Trump actually has done during his term to address the very complaints he spewed at former President Barack Obama. But his believability problem goes beyond that. Police abuse cases of the type that now trigger destruction and strife never caused Trump much concern before. His camp regarded it as a problem for the Democrats, who run big cities in blue states and rely on African American voters in national elections.
Lt. Bob Kroll, the police union leader for Minneapolis, was targeted in a racial-discrimination lawsuit and in civilian complaints. These might have seemed to be badges of honor last October when Trump called him up to speak at a rally.
“The Obama administration and the handcuffing and oppression of police was despicable,” roared Kroll, who gave out red "Cops for Trump" T-shirts. “The first thing President Trump did when he took office was turn that around," Kroll said. "He decided to start to let cops do their job, put the handcuffs on the criminals instead of [on] us.”
Floyd died last month after one of Kroll's now-arrested officers knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. At first Trump said, "Just a terrible thing. He was in tremendous pain obviously … This was a terrible insult to police and policemen … The Justice Department is looking at it very strongly."
Not everyone takes it seriously when Trump waves around the prospect of martial law. He has already bluffed plans to military force against North Korea, at the U.S. southern border and against Iran. His get-tough lecture to governors on Monday contrasted with his calls from the sidelines for them to "liberate" states from public health measures imposed to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Those earlier messages had little effect. They were a wink to protesters, some of them armed, denouncing Democratic elected officials.
"Law and order!" the president declared in his brief address Monday. That phrase worked for Richard Nixon in the 1968 election. But Trump is running as an incumbent who said in his inaugural speech three and a half years ago: "We will be protected by the great men and women of our military and law." Are we now?
For several reasons, the president's talk of declaring antifa, an umbrella description for some far-left-leaning militant groups, a "domestic terrorist organization" sounds as fanciful as his hints in 2016 that he'd pursue aggressive tactics against Muslims under the aegis of national security.
Recent reaction in Washington was minimal, however, when two terrorist attacks in the past six months — both deemed jihad-related by the FBI — killed and injured U.S. personnel on military bases in Florida and Texas. The president did not audibly denounce the presence of "radical Islamic terrorism" on his watch.
After the Parkland school massacre in 2018, Trump said, "I really believe I'd run in there even if I didn't have a weapon" to save people. Broward County, Florida, deputies who allegedly held back during the attack "weren't exactly Medal of Honor winners," he said.
Contrast that tough talk with Friday night, when the Secret Service spirited him to an underground bunker while fires and demonstrations raged outside the White House.
That episode led Hu Xijin, editor of a Chinese Communist Party newspaper, to tweet at Trump: “Mr. President, don’t go hide behind the secret service. Go to talk to the demonstrators seriously. Negotiate with them, just like you urged Beijing to talk to Hong Kong rioters."
Sounds like it's Trump who's getting laughed at.