President Donald Trump is already trying to convince Americans that what his supporters are calling the “American carnage” of 2020 is the one Trump falsely warned about in 2016 and 2017. First, without sharing any factual basis, he tweeted on Saturday, “It’s ANTIFA and the Radical Left. Don’t lay the blame on others!” Then, without any legal basis, he tweeted on Sunday, “The United States of America will be designating ANTIFA as a Terrorist Organization.” But the violence we’re seeing right now is not the so-called “American carnage” Trump described in 2016 as he simultaneously claimed only he could lead the country out of it. As November approaches, we can’t let Trump scare Americans into believing his version of events.
The insidious core of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign was that Americans should be full of fear—hate-fueled fear. Trump inflated and intertwined a number of threats, conjuring an America under siege from jihadist terrorists, immigrants pouring over the border, and inner-city violence. This was, relentlessly, Trump’s trio of topics at campaign rallies: ISIS, Mexican immigrants, and Chicago’s murder rate. He didn’t need to be explicit—though sometimes he was anyway—that the first claim scapegoated Muslim Americans, the second Latino and Latina Americans, and the third black Americans. It was enough to repeat endlessly the three claims—and to link them, by falsely asserting that terrorists were entering America through our border with Mexico and that immigrants were fueling terrorism and other crimes—for Trump to run a campaign driven by fear. In turn, his most outrageous campaign promises were presented as responses to the very threats Trump mischaracterized: a Muslim ban, purportedly to stop terrorists from entering the United States; a border wall, purportedly to keep out immigrants; and an indulgence of rough police tactics, purportedly to get tough on crime.
Once Trump took office, he didn’t walk back his incendiary rhetoric. He doubled down on it. In an astonishingly dark inaugural address, Trump spoke of “American carnage” that did not exist, at least not as he described it. But he’d already conjured it for enough voters to get himself elected.
Now, in 2020, American cities are actually burning. From Minneapolis to Atlanta, from Louisville to New York City, police cars are aflame, storefronts are shattered, and—most importantly—Americans are dead and wounded, amid unrest sparked by justifiable outrage over the murder of George Floyd. Meanwhile, in Washington, Trump continues to pour gasoline onto the fire, so much so that Twitter stepped in and put a warning on Trump’s tweet. Even after that, Trump returned to Twitter to call out his own supporters for what could have yielded violent clashes with protestors near the White House.
It’s easy to chalk up Trump’s abysmal reaction to sheer incompetence and lack of human empathy. As always, that’s part of it for Trump.
But there’s more.
Trailing former Vice President Joe Biden badly in the polls, Trump is poised to do what he always does: insist he was right all along, then return to his familiar themes. By immediately blaming—again, without offering any basis—familiar scapegoats like “ANTIFA and the Radical Left,” Trump is telling Americans—or, at least, telling his supporters—that the so-called “American carnage” unfolding today is the one he’s always claimed is plaguing America. Next, Trump will demand political support for him to suppress it, as some who cheer Trump are already urging.
But it’s a lie, just as it was in 2016. And it’s critical for Americans to understand that. What we’re seeing now, in cities across the country is complicated. We’re seeing peaceful protestors fed up with the relentless news of yet another unarmed black man killed by the police, and more broadly what Democratic Congressman John Lewis has movingly called a “sense of despair and hopelessness” based on “[j]ustice . . . denied for far too long.” We’re seeing some white nationalists and other far-right provocateurs treating the protests as opportunities to sow discord. We’re seeing others who are engaging in unacceptable violence, looting, and other forms of breaking the law. We’re seeing the effects of pent-up frustration in the context of a pandemic that’s left schools and workplaces closed and Americans isolated and angry, especially at our federal government’s poor response. And we’re seeing police responses that range from the admirable to the unacceptable.
But we can’t let Trump claim he was right all along. Because he wasn’t, and he isn’t. As he desperately seeks reelection, Trump wants Americans scared—and, in particular, he wants certain Americans scared of certain other Americans based on race and religion. That was his path to victory in 2016. That was his attempt, by evoking the notion of a “migrant caravan” “invasion,” to salvage his party’s showing at the midterms in 2018. And he clearly thinks that’s his only hope of reelection now. As Trump himself said in 2016, “Real power is—I don’t even want to use the word—fear.”
It would be easy to end here by blithely quoting President Franklin Roosevelt that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” But that won’t do. Because the whole reason that the protestors—those truly protesting—have taken to the streets is because, terribly, some Americans have reason to be fearful. Ahmaud Arbery was shot and killed by fellow Americans while jogging in February. George Floyd said repeatedly, “I can’t breathe,” before being killed by a police officer kneeling on his neck. Breonna Taylor was shot and killed in her own apartment by police conducting a no-knock search warrant. What’s more, black Americans are being hit disproportionately hard by coronavirus, dying at rates substantially higher than their proportion of the population. These terrible episodes speak to the very real fear and inequality that black Americans keep telling the rest of us they experience. But they’re not the only ones. Muslim Americans, immigrants, and others scapegoated by Trump have also experienced heightened fear over the past three-plus years.
So, Trump is not just wrong about what we’re witnessing today; he’s also partly responsible. To be sure, Trump’s not wholly responsible, given the deep structural and systemic drivers at work. But he’s partly—and significantly—responsible for making things worse rather than better.
That’s because Trump’s stoking of misplaced fears contributed to the real fears being protested today, amid what’s become broader unrest and violence. There’s a reason certain members of the police feel unleashed to act on their worst impulses. It’s in part because Trump said they should. There’s a reason vulnerable communities feel targeted. It’s in part because Trump targeted them. There’s a reason we see members of the media being violently attacked as they try to bring the rest of us the truth about what’s happening nationwide. It’s in part because Trump called them the “enemy of the people.”
Trump didn’t warn us about this. He helped make this. This isn’t “American carnage.” This is, in significant part, “Trump carnage.” Don’t let him tell you otherwise.
Image: A demonstrator confronts police as he protests the death of George Floyd, in Los Angeles, California on May 29, 2020. Photo by Mark RALSTON / AFP) (Photo by MARK RALSTON/AFP via Getty Images