Washington, United States, Jun 4 – From the White House, President Donald Trump delivered blunt — some say alarming — instructions to local leaders confronting nationwide street protests against police brutality: “dominate.”
“If you don’t dominate, you’re wasting your time,” he told state governors.
And if they tried, but failed?
“Then I will deploy the US military and quickly solve the problem for them.”
Trump has always had a thing about physical force — and admiration for world leaders who aren’t afraid to use it.
Much of the time, this is a question of style.
Ever since his real estate building days, Trump has crafted an image of the brash, bullying businessman who’ll do anything to win.
He loves watching pro-wrestling and mixed martial arts fights. As president, he fills his speeches with words like “tough” and “powerful.”
At rallies, one of the warm-up songs — whether or not his right-wing supporters know it was originally a gay anthem — is “Macho Man” by the Village People.
But throughout his first term, Trump has broken US diplomatic norms by expressing admiration for dictators and strongmen, ranging from North Korea’s Kim Jong Un to Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
And with only five months until a tense election day, critics fear that Trump is using a national crisis to flirt with his own brand of authoritarianism.
– Power walk? –
After having declared himself a wartime president in tackling the coronavirus pandemic, Trump is now diving deep into an actual military posture on the streets of America.
On Monday he warned governors that weakness in the face of protests marred by looting and arson would make them “look like a bunch of jerks.”
Then he threatened to invoke the rarely used Insurrection Act, which would mean deploying the armed forces on US soil, even against local leaders’ will.
Rather than focus on what protesters say is the root of the unrest — decades of racism and brutality against African Americans — he homed in on the rioting by a minority, calling this “domestic terror.”
His defense Secretary, Mark Esper, echoed that muscular approach, telling governors to “dominate the battlespace.”
The Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, General Mark Milley, appeared at the White House in camouflage uniform. Military helicopters hovered low over Washington protesters. A dizzying array of different security force units deployed in the city.
Finally, in a gesture of raw strength, police beat mostly peaceful protesters out of Lafayette Square, next to the White House, so that Trump could safely walk across to a damaged church and brandish a Bible in front of the news cameras.
It was cast as just a stroll, but for Trump this was really a moment to swagger.
– ‘Churchill’ or divider? –
Trump is behind in the polls ahead of the November election. Analysts believe he hopes that his new “law and order” slogan, harking back to Richard Nixon’s win in tumultuous 1968, will save him by encouraging his base to vote.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany likened Trump’s photo-op outside the church to World War II era British prime minister Winston Churchill touring the wreckage of London during the Nazi bombing Blitz.
“It was powerful and important to send a message that the rioters, the looters, the anarchists, they will not prevail, that burning churches are not what America is about,” she said.
Many, though, are horrified.
Abigail Spanberger, a Democratic congresswoman who used to be in the intelligence services, accused Trump of “betraying the very foundations of the rule of law.”
“As a former CIA officer, I know this playbook,” she tweeted.
Trump’s former defense secretary, the respected, retired Marine general James Mattis, penned a scathing attack Wednesday that immediately reverberated through the capital after he called the incident an “abuse of executive authority.”
“Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people — does not even pretend to try. Instead he tries to divide us,” Mattis wrote.
“We must reject any thinking of our cities as a ‘battlespace,’” he said. “Militarizing our response, as we witnessed in Washington, DC, sets up a conflict—a false conflict—between the military and civilian society.”
Often with Trump, it is hard to discern where his reality-TV style ends and where true reality begins.
Over the last three years, he has blown repeatedly hot and cold on crises ranging from his attempt to wall off the Mexican border to threats of war with Iran.
On Wednesday, Esper came out in surprisingly clear terms that he opposed invoking the Insurrection Act, perhaps signalling that Trump will have to soften his bellicose position.
But in a political sense, Trump feels he’s hit a winning groove.
The Democrats are “going to lose an election because they’re weak on crime,” he told right-wing Newsmax TV.
“I am law and order — they’re not.”