With Trump we've reached the 'mad emperor' stage, and it's terrifying to behold

Richard Wolffe
Photograph: Patrick Semansky/AP

Writing from a Birmingham jail, Martin Luther King Jr famously told his anxious fellow clergymen that his non-violent protests would force those in power to negotiate for racial justice. “The time is always ripe to do right,” he wrote. 

On an early summer evening, two generations later, Donald Trump walked out of the White House, where he’d been hiding in a bunker. Military police had just fired teargas and flash grenades at peaceful protesters to clear his path, so that he could wave a bible in front of a boarded church. 

For Trump, the time is always ripe to throw kerosene on his own dumpster fire. 

In the week since George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police officers, Trump has watched and tweeted helplessly as the nation he pretends to lead has reached its breaking point. After decades of supposedly legal police beatings and murders, the protests have swept America’s cities more quickly than even coronavirus. 

This is no coincidence of timing. In other crises, in other eras, there have been presidents who understood their most basic duty: to calm the violence and protect the people. In this crisis, however, we have a president who built his entire political career as a gold-painted tower to incite violence.

We were told, by Trump’s supporters four years ago, that we should have taken him seriously but not literally. As it happened, it was entirely appropriate to take him literally, as a serious threat to the rule of law.

Related: As the George Floyd protests continue, let's be clear where the violence is coming from | Rebecca Solnit

During his 2016 campaign, he encouraged his supporters to assault protesters. “Knock the crap out of them, would you? Seriously, OK,” he said on the day of the Iowa caucuses. “I promise you I will pay for the legal fees.” Later in Las Vegas, he said the security guards were too gentle with another protester. “I’d like to punch him in the face,” he said

Sure enough, a protester was sucker-punched on his way out of a rally the following month. 

No wonder Trump was sued for incitement to riot by three protesters who were assaulted as they left one of his rallies in Kentucky. The case ultimately failed, but only after a judge ruled that Trump recklessly incited violence against an African-American woman by a crowd that included known members of hate groups. 

So when he stood, as president, and told a crowd of police officers to be violent with arrested citizens, it wasn’t some weird joke or misstatement, no matter what his aides claimed afterwards. “When you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon, you just see ’em thrown in, rough, I said, ‘Please don’t be too nice.’ 

“I have to tell you, you know, the laws are so horrendously stacked against us, because for years and years, they’ve been made to protect the criminal,” he added. “Totally made to protect the criminal. Not the officers. You do something wrong, you’re in more jeopardy than they are.” 

Trump was happily inciting police violence a year after charges were dropped against several Baltimore officers who somehow allowed Freddie Gray to die of severe neck injuries in the back of their paddy wagon.

Then again, Trump took out a full-page ad calling for the death penalty for the five boys and young men wrongfully arrested as the Central Park Five in 1989. Just last year he refused to apologise for his racist incitement in that case. 

Trump can no more end today’s violence than he can manage a pandemic that has killed more than 100,000 Americans, or create the jobs that will rescue more than 40 million unemployed. 

Faced with a three-fold crisis of racial, health and economic disasters, we have a three-year-old in the Oval Office. 

Our get-tough president started his day by telling the nation’s governors that the world was laughing at them – a recurring nightmare that he loves to project onto everyone else. 

“You have to dominate or you’ll look like a bunch of jerks,” he declared, speaking as something of a world-class jerk. “You have to arrest and try people,” he said of the protesters that he called “terrorists”.

One of the Democratic governor-jerks decided to draw the line at Trump’s rhetoric. “I need to say that people are feeling real pain out there and we’ve got to have national leadership in calling for calm and making sure that we’re addressing the concerns of the legitimate peaceful protesters,” said JB Pritzker of Illinois, during a conference call between the president and state governors. “That will help us to bring order.” 

“OK well thank you very much, JB,” our infant-in-chief reportedly responded. “I don’t like your rhetoric much either because I watched it with respect to the coronavirus, and I don’t like your rhetoric much either. I think you could’ve done a much better job, frankly.” 

Yeah. And he probably smells too. 

Later in the day, Trump demonstrated to the world that he had learned precisely nothing in his three and a half years in charge of the world’s most diverse nation. 

“I am your president of law and order,” he said in the Rose Garden, as thousands of Americans protested against the nation’s agents of law and order. Trump said he would mobilise “all available federal resources, civilian and military, to stop the rioting and looting” to protect “your Second Amendment rights”. 

If you’ve missed all the protesters seizing weapons from NRA members, you’re not alone. That last bit was a call to arms for every vigilante to escalate the violence. We have somehow devolved from dog whistle to foghorn politics.

There is no end of Republican arsonists who have happily torched their lifelong support for states’ rights and their diehard opposition to an all-powerful central government. 

Senator Tom Cotton from Arkansas tweeted that the protesters – he prefers to call them terrorists – should face combat troops on American streets. “Let’s see how tough these Antifa terrorists are when they’re facing off with the 101st Airborne Division,” he wrote of the Screaming Eagles, who actually killed real fascists in the D-Day landings. 

Never mind the actual law of the land that expressly prohibits the US military from domestic law enforcement, unless a state governor requests it. 

This is a president that cannot decide if he’s serious about shooting looters and protesters or just warning that they might get accidentally shot. “It was spoken as a fact, not as a statement,” Trump helpfully explained on Friday, before spending the weekend threatening them with “vicious dogs” and “ominous weapons”.

That was a day before he said his administration “will always stand against violence, mayhem and disorder”.

Confused? That’s the point of this endlessly corrupted story where the aggressor is a peace-loving victim, and the victim is a hateful aggressor.

When he wrote his legendary letter, King was sitting in jail after marching in defiance of a ban against anti-segregation protests. The man who is now a national icon was jailed just one month before the city’s police chief set fire hoses and dogs on children who were also defying the ban.

“More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will,” King wrote. “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.”

Trump has used his time in the White House far more effectively than anyone could have imagined. He ignored the dead and dying in Puerto Rico and brutalised the children at the border. He ignored the dead and dying in the pandemic and wants to brutalise the protesters in our cities.

In five months, the good people can end both his hateful words and their own appalling silence.

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