In a video call on Monday, President Donald Trump reportedly berated governors for their “weak” response to the weekend’s protests and urged them to take an even more aggressive posture.
Meanwhile, a Republican senator urged the U.S. military to commit war crimes against American citizens.
Just another day in the crazy world of 2020.
Trump told the nation’s governors that many of them looked like “a bunch of jerks” for refusing to “dominate” the people protesting the police slaying of George Floyd. In some places, the protests have turned into violent clashes with police and private businesses have been looted.
“It is a war in a certain sense,” Trump told the governors, according to The Washington Post. “And we will end it fast. Be tough.”
“You’ve got to arrest people, you have to track people, you have to put them in jail for 10 years and you’ll never see this stuff again,” Trump said, according to The New York Times.
Trump’s call for more aggressive police tactics—coming after a weekend filled with police brutality—isn’t just tone-deaf. It’s likely to escalate the risk of further riots. At a time when both protesters and police should be working to deescalate the violence, Trump isn’t helping. One can only hope the nation’s governors will dismiss his suggestions.
But this is very on-brand for Trump, who has a long history of saying things like this. “When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it,” Trump told Playboy in 1990. “Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength.”
Asked about those remarks during the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump refused to disavow them. There is little to suggest he has changed his mind now. Indeed, as Reason‘s Mike Riggs noted in 2018, Trump has “encouraged law enforcement violence against people suspected of crimes, suggested that we don’t torture enough, and openly praised Philippine President Rodrigue Duterte’s extrajudicial murder crusade against drug users and dealers alike.”
Trump is who he is and that’s unlikely to change. More worrying in some regards is the rush on the right to support a military-style crackdown on the protests. Trump’s comments were wildly out of line, but Sen. Tom Cotton (R–Ark.) issued a series of tweets today that were even more unhinged:
And, if necessary, the 10th Mountain, 82nd Airborne, 1st Cav, 3rd Infantry—whatever it takes to restore order. No quarter for insurrectionists, anarchists, rioters, and looters. https://t.co/OnNJmnDrYM
— Tom Cotton (@TomCottonAR) June 1, 2020
Cotton also wrote that “George Floyd deserves justice,” but his other tweets leave the impression that he’s not interested in justice for people engaged in vandalism or looting. As The Dispatch‘s David French noted, a “no quarter” order would be a violation of American and international law, a war crime, and murder.
In a mid-afternoon tweet, Trump signaled his approval for Cotton’s suggestion.
Obviously, the destruction of private property should be condemned. Mayors and governors should take steps to prevent protests from turning into riots, and individuals who harm people or destroy property should be held accountable for their actions.
But calling for governments to deploy more violence against people who are protesting police brutality is not only missing the point; it is likely to make things worse. Even when aggressive tactics are not directly violent, they can create the conditions for violence to escalate. For example, encircling protestors to limit the spread of chaos—a tactic known as “kettling” or “corralling”—indiscriminately targets both violent and peaceful protesters. The targets may find themselved with little choice but to break through police lines, sparking more violence.
Unfortunately, feigning “toughness” is one of the few things Trump can be trusted to do with any consistency. The governors should ignore him.