Recently, Donald Trump stood in the White House Rose Garden and announced an executive order on police reform – a list of minor, unfunded actions that incentivized some changes but mandated none.
This was his response to the Black Lives Matter protests sweeping the country. I don’t think it was an action he wanted to take, but one that he had to take at this moment when his poll numbers are dipping and people are demanding change.
Not once in his speech did he say the words “protests” or “protesters.” Instead, the speech swung from acknowledging the pain of families who’ve lost loved ones to police violence and promising “to fight for justice for all of our people,” to more law-and-order talk and condemnation of riots, looting and arson.
Those lawless acts occurred in some cities in the beginning, but the protests have moved well beyond that now.
Trump knows that, but that is an inconvenient truth. He is a racist and white supremacist, and many people wear his MAGA hats as racist regalia. He has no tolerance for a movement for Black lives, only for the instruments to control them and quiet them. And he knows that many of his supporters share this view.
That’s why he paints Black protesters as criminals and their white allies as leftist radicals.
This is the Blacks-and-hippies duo that racists on the right have long targeted. Author Dan Baum wrote in Harper’s Magazine in 2016 that John Ehrlichman, aide to Richard Nixon and Watergate co-conspirator, told him about the birth of the war on drugs:
“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and Black people. ... We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or Black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and Blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
Trump, too, is trying to vilify what he must see as a nightmare alliance. At his Tulsa rally, he warned, “If the Democrats gain power, then the rioters will be in charge and no one will be safe and no one will have control.”
At that rally he told his supporters:
“The unhinged left-wing mob is trying to vandalize our history, desecrate our monuments, our beautiful monuments. Tear down our statues and punish, cancel and persecute anyone who does not conform to their demands for absolute and total control. ... This cruel campaign of censorship and exclusion violates everything we hold dear as Americans. They want to demolish our heritage so they can impose their new oppressive regime in its place.”
The “our” in that passage is “white people’s.” This, for Trump, and Trump culture, is about white heritage, white power and the possibility of displacement. That’s what it has been about from the beginning.
Blacks and hippies must be controlled and the police are the instruments of that control. He said in the Rose Garden, “Nobody needs a strong, trustworthy police force more than those who live in distressed areas.”
But distress is an issue of resources that cannot be solved by police repression. As the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights has put it:
“The safest neighborhoods aren’t the ones with the most prisons and the most police – they’re the ones with the best schools, the cleanest environment and the most opportunities for young people and working people.”
Trump’s law-and-order talk doesn’t seek to address the rage this inequity has bred, but rather to contain it, to return society to slumber, to have the oppressed suffer in silence so that the oppressors can revel in the void.
As Geoff Nunberg wrote for NPR about the racial coding of Trump’s “law and order” push, “Trump’s single-handed effort to revive the slogan ‘law and order’ is the key to creating the perception of a new crisis of crime and violence.”
The people protesting want justice and equality, an end to racism and a dawning of a new egalitarianism. Trump and his supporters see the protests as a crisis, a form of chaos that threatens the order.
Trump said in the Rose Garden, “Americans want law and order, they demand law and order. They may not say it, they may not be talking about it, but that’s what they want. Some of them don’t even know that’s what they want but that’s what they want.”
That America he is talking to is white America, his portion of it, and he is signaling that “law and order” is the only way to ensure the continuity of their control.
Charles Blow is a columnist for The New York Times.