The lowest bar to clear in addressing the death of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police is to understand that it shouldn’t have happened. To decry Floyd’s death is better than to accept it, certainly, but it’s hardly a mark of moral fortitude. When even institutions like the Fraternal Order of Police are willing to criticize the actions of the arresting officers, doing so becomes less a political statement than a starting point.
In his repeated comments over the past several days, President Donald Trump has reached that starting point – and gone no further. While he criticizes Floyd’s death, he has made repeatedly clear his lack of understanding of the resulting protests. To show empathy to black Americans (an effort indistinguishable from his political intentions), he instead shows not only how little empathy he holds but also how much he actually empathizes with the system the protests are targeting.
In remarks made during his visit to Florida on Saturday, Trump came close to expressing a grasp of the driving motivation for the ongoing unrest.
“My administration will always stand against violence, mayhem and disorder,” he said, reading from his prepared remarks. “We will stand with the family of George Floyd, with the peaceful protesters and with every law-abiding citizen who wants decency, civility, safety and security.”
“We are working toward a more just society,” he continued, “but that means building up, not tearing down.”
What the Floyd family and peaceful protesters want is not immediately a decent and civil society. It is, in fact, a just one, one in which Floyd’s life isn’t more at risk because of the color of his skin. One in which incidents like Floyd’s death are rare and one in which it doesn’t take days or weeks – or forever – for the perpetrators to be held accountable. A society in which interactions between people of color and law enforcement are not exceptional, and a society in which the ability of people of color to thrive generally is itself not exceptional. A decent society would be great, but the need for a just one is what’s motivating people to march in the streets.
At no point has Trump ever spontaneously demonstrated an understanding that race undergirds the enforcement of law in the United States and, therefore, justice itself. Even setting aside his unique understanding of justice as it pertains to his own whims, Trump has made repeatedly clear he sees no justification in opposing the death of Floyd beyond the death itself.
His commentary on Floyd and the protests is broadly and repeatedly dismissive. When an angry crowd arrived at the White House on Friday, he described them as “so-called ‘protesters,'” using scare-quotes to suggest the concerns being expressed were insincere and that their attendance was somehow stage-managed. (In the same tweet, he tried to gin up a demonstration of his own, hinting that maybe Saturday could be “MAGA NIGHT AT THE WHITE HOUSE.” It wasn’t.) In his infamous tweet suggesting looting might result in shooting, he described protesters as “THUGS,” drawing no distinction between those committing acts of vandalism or violence with those expressing indignation at Floyd’s death and at the system that they believe led to it.
There’s no reason to think Trump believes the system of law enforcement in the country has systemic problems with race. Speaking to CNN on Sunday morning, national security adviser Robert O’Brien said explicitly he himself didn’t believe there was systemic racism in American law enforcement. His explanation, though, didn’t actually address racism within the system. He instead said “99.9 percent of our law enforcement officers are great Americans,” as though systemic racism was solely about racist views of individuals within the system. Racist police officers, whom he acknowledged, were simply “bad apples” – a by-now-familiar rejoinder to the complaints of protesters.
The protesters’ point, of course, is that the design and administration of the system yield unequal results for black Americans. That the difference in the likelihood of black Americans to be considered as suspects, their treatment as suspects, the way in which the criminal justice system handles their cases and the punishments it levies are not equal. Are not just. This is intertwined with other ways in which American society disadvantages people of color, often by explicit historical design. The protests aren’t about Floyd’s death, as such, but his death is a reminder that the endpoint of the system is too frequently the death of a black man.
Many white Americans don’t accept there are demonstrated differences in the ability of black and white Americans to succeed. The emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement following the deaths of black men at the hands of police in 2014 shifted the views of many white Americans, mostly Democrats. But a Pew Research Center poll conducted in late 2016 found most Americans – 57 percent – believe the country has made changes giving black Americans the same rights as whites.
Among white police officers, a conservative segment of the white population, 92 percent held that position. Trump, it is safe to assume, joins them. It’s likely many of his most fervent supporters do, as well, given polling from the 2016 election that repeatedly indicated Trump’s base was more likely than other groups to see white Americans as oppressed.
Trump’s response to the protests has not been to “build up and not tear down” in order to build the just society that was written on his teleprompter. It has, instead, been to use the protests as an opportunity to build up his own toughness and his demonstrated support for police while tearing down Democrats and other political opponents. Over and over, he has praised – celebrated – police and the military as enforcement agents.
He has repeatedly criticized Democratic mayors and governors as being unduly wishy-washy in responding to the protests, suggesting, as he did in the 2016 campaign, that he’d be super-extra-mega-tough, given the opportunity. Never mind tweets like this one from 2014, declaring the weakness of Barack Obama’s White House was leading to protests that year: “Our country is totally fractured and, with our weak leadership in Washington, you can expect Ferguson type riots and looting in other places”.
Part of this is opportunistic, certainly. But part of it, too, reflects the extent to which Trump doesn’t, won’t or can’t understand the concerns of the protesters. Just as he has expressed his belief that black Americans should vote for him because he oversaw a continued reduction of the black unemployment rate, he seems to think simply acknowledging Floyd’s death as an unacceptable aberration should be enough. That he can speak for Floyd’s family – which seems unlikely, given his actual conversation with them – or that he can articulate the terms under which Floyd’s death can be considered.
Here, in a nutshell, is how Trump sees the moment:
“These are ‘Organized Groups’ that have nothing to do with George Floyd. Sad!”
Protesters are inherently illegitimate gatherings of people organized by some unnamed entity who, he can assure us, are not reflecting the meaning of Floyd’s death. Through his other comments, Trump tells us what that meaning is: Bad things happen sometimes and the organized group that is law enforcement must be defended in the face of “violence, mayhem and disorder.”
This message may resonate with those who support him but it will by no means prompt any reconsideration from those frustrated by the system he leads.