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Unequal Justice: Trump, Twitter, and the Narrative of Chaos

Just a few short days ago, Donald Trump seemed all but defeated. Trailing badly in the polls, beset by the world’s worst COVID-19 outbreak, and faced with unemployment numbers rivaling those of the Great Depression, Trump had the look of a one-term president. He had even been fact-checked and embarrassed by his beloved Twitter for promoting the lie that voting by mail is “substantially fraudulent” and will lead to a “rigged” election in the fall. 

Now, he wants to declare declare Antifa a terrorist organization, ignoring reports that white supremacist groups, intent on inciting a race war, are provoking violence in many cities. Trump is also urging ten-year prison terms for arrested protesters. 

Then the overwhelmingly peaceful protests across the country against the police murder of George Floyd took an ugly turn as incidents of looting and arson broke out, first in Minneapolis, and then in Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, Los Angeles, and many other cities. Despite being flagged again by Twitter for glorifying violence in a May 28 tweet that labeled protesters in Minneapolis “thugs” and invoked a racist saying coined in 1960s by the police chief of Miami, Florida (“When the looting starts, the shooting starts”), Trump now has a pathway to reelection. 

To prevail, Trump will have to redirect media attention away from police abuse and Floyd’s killing, and repackage himself as “the President of law and order.” That’s precisely what he called himself in his address from the Rose Garden Monday evening. 

Like it or not, mainstream media coverage of movements for social change is important, sometimes critically so. And for all of Trump’s weaknesses as a leader (he reportedly cowered in an underground bunker Friday night as demonstrations took place outside the White House), few politicians have proven more adept at manipulating the media to stoke racial animosity and white backlash. 

Among those who recognize the current dangers Trump poses is Princeton University professor of politics Omar Wasow, one of the country’s foremost experts on the relationship between media and protest movements. In a May 29 interview with Issac Chotiner, a staff writer for The New Yorker, Wasow explained that public support for protest movements waxes and wanes in direct relation to dominant narratives about the causes and sources of violence.  

“Nonviolent protests can be very effective if they are able to get media attention, and . . . there is a very strong relationship between media coverage and public concern about whatever issues . . . protesters are raising,” Wasow told Chotiner. But, he continued, it’s hard for “groups that are the object of state violence” to maintain public support. 

“What we often see is that, when protesters engage in violence, often in a very understandable response to state repression, that tends to work against their cause and interests, and mobilizes or becomes fodder for the opposition to grow its coalition.”

In the mid-to late-1960s, Wasow added, “When we observed a wave of violent protests . . . white moderates who supported the Democratic Party after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 defected to the Republican Party in 1968.” The result was the election of Richard Nixon.  

We’re witnessing the beginnings of a similar shift in the dominant narrative today, as demonstrations against police brutality have been followed in city after city by the opportunistic and, in some instances, seemingly organized plundering and ransacking of local stores and businesses. 

To draw on my own experience, I watched the looting that took place in my hometown of Santa Monica, California, as it unfolded on live TV Sunday afternoon. I saw late-model cars and SUVs moving from block to block, unloading passengers who kicked in shop windows, stormed inside and quickly emerged with clothing and jewelry before overstretched police officers could respond. The chaos continued into the evening as the National Guard was called in to patrol the streets. 

It’s too early to tell whether Trump and his allies will succeed in turning the images of chaos to their advantage. But there is no denying the need to master and manage the narrative to prevent a slide to the right in the fashion of 1968. 

As Wasow put it, “[I]f you are this white moderate, and perceive the disorder to be coming from African-Americans in cities, then turning to Trump, even if you see him as a rough character, is appealing: He’s a street fighter, but he is our street fighter.”     

The power of Trump’s racist narrative cannot be underestimated. He has employed the tools and techniques of racism from his formative days as a real estate developer, when the Justice Department in 1973 accused him, and his father, of housing discrimination. 

Trump’s racist past also includes, but is by no means limited to, the full-page ads he took out in New York City newspapers in 1989 to urge the death penalty for five black and Latino teenagers who had been falsely accused and convicted of brutally raping a white woman in Central Park. To this day, he has refused to apologize for the ads he placed, even though the defendants were subsequently released from prison after DNA evidence exonerated them and the actual perpetrator confessed. 

As a publicity-seeking huckster during Barack Obama’s presidency, Trump was a leading proponent of the “birther movement” that alleged that Obama was born in Kenya. Later, as a presidential candidate, his “Make America Great Again” slogan masterfully channeled a message of covert racism directed to white fear and racial resentment. 

In his inaugural address in January 2017, Trump pledged to take action against “the crime and the gangs and the drugs that have . . . robbed our country.” During the neo-Nazi riots that tore through Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, he referred to individuals on “both sides” of the conflict as “very fine people.” 

Now, he wants to declare declare Antifa a terrorist organization, ignoring reports that white supremacist groups, intent on inciting a race war, are provoking violence in many cities. Trump is also urging ten-year prison terms for arrested protesters. 

In Monday’s Rose Garden speech, Trump went one terrible step further, threatening to dispatch “thousands and thousands of heavily armed soldiers, military personnel and law enforcement officers” to the states. The Insurrection Act of 1807 may well give him the authority to do so. The Act was invoked 1992, when federalized National Guard troops were sent to Los Angeles at the request of the state’s governor to help quell rioting that had erupted after four police officers were acquitted for the savage beating of Rodney King, an African-American motorist. 

Unlike 1992, however, the scope of Trump’s threat is national, and he will not, apparently, seek the approval of local or state governments. Martial law for the entire country is now a real possibility.  

Our task on the progressive left is to remind the public not only of Trump’s violent and racist proclivities, but of the deeper history of violence and racism in America. We need to tell and retell the shameful but undeniable truth that our nation was built on violence and racism, from the arrival of the first slave ships on our shores to the Jim Crow terror instituted in the South after the Civil War to the mass incarceration policies of the last century that continue to this day. 

And we cannot afford to fail. If we do, the racist who took over the Republican Party in 2016 could win again. And the Democrats, saddled with an aging, often ineffective and uninspiring presidential nominee, could prove unable to stop him. 


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