Alan Zendell, May 29, 2020
Regardless of how you feel about the presidency of Barrack Obama, one thing most of America concluded from it was that we had turned a corner as a nation. For a black man to have been elected president and served two full terms without an assassination attempt seemed like a genuine milestone for a nation barely a century-and-a-half out of slavery. I drank that Kool-aid too, and for eight years, even when I strongly disagreed with Obama’s Mideast policies, I consoled myself with pride in the fact that our national consciousness had evolved.
One of the toughest body blows of Trump’s election was the recognition that the eight-year euphoria over improved race relations had been only an illusion. The haters had neither gone away nor changed their minds. They’d just melted into the shadows, waiting and watching. Roger Ailes, the founder of Fox News, knew they were there, and he knew how their anger and frustration could be harnessed politically if he could find an ambitious politician shameless enough to pander to it. To our deep regret, he found Donald Trump.
Trump stoked the flames of hate and divisiveness at every opportunity, appealing to an unfounded paranoia that everyone but him wanted to take peoples’ guns away and affording racists and neo-Nazis a level of respect that was an affront to every decent American. After accusing his predecessors, Obama and George W. Bush, of failing to protect Americans from gun violence he reacted to the October 2017 Las Vegas massacre, the worst act of domestic terrorism since Timothy McVey blew up a federal building in Oklahoma City, by caving in to the National Rifle Association.
When armed White Supremacists terrorized the University of Virginia and the city of Charlottesville, he called them “fine people.” When desperate refugees from south of our border risked the lives of their families to legally seek asylum in our country, Trump had their children confiscated and incarcerated because they were neither white nor wealthy. When governors of both parties issued Executive Orders to protect their citizens from the COVID-19 virus, Trump undermined them at every turn and encouraged the heavily armed lunatic fringe in those states to open rebellion.
After five years of Trump stoking the flames of hate and racism since he began his run for president, the city of Minneapolis, long regarded as one of the great melting pot success stories of modern America, erupted in violence because four white police officers were caught on video brutally executing a man who was guilty of being black. I needn’t comment on how awful that crime was. We’ve all seen the evidence with our own eyes.
In 1968 when I worked at the Institute for Defense Analysis in Arlington, Virginia, I stood at an upper story window watching Washington burn after the assassination of Martin Luther King, as outside agitators and anarchists turned peaceful, mournful demonstrations into a deadly conflagration. In 2015 I was living outside Baltimore when another group of local police caused the death of an unarmed, chained suspect. There too, outside agitators turned angry but peaceful protests into a terrifying riot of mayhem and destruction.
This week the justified anger of the anti-racist community in Minneapolis and St. Paul erupted into street demonstrations. Most of the demonstrators were there to protest peacefully, until once again, outside agitators and trouble makers turned the protests into a replay of Baltimore. After two nights of chaos and rioting, prosecutors finally ordered the arrest of one of the officers, who had a long record of citizen complaints against him, and Minnesota Governor Tim Walz held an eighty-minute long press conference.
Walz displayed exactly the right tone of compassion and leadership, promising to get to the root of long simmering racial anger and directly addressing the pain of its victims. He appealed for calm and restraint and several times accepted responsibility for fixing the situation. As we saw with multiple governors’ responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, Walz accepted the cloak of leadership and wore it with distinction.
And what did our president do? After hailing the armed protesters who stormed state capitols in Michigan and Kentucky as heroes and patriots, he suggested that unarmed protesters in Minneapolis should be shot. Governor Walz, clearly blown away by Trump’s uninvited involvement, visibly restrained himself and simply called Trump’s words “unhelpful.”
The actions of a small number of rogue police officers and the reactions of aggrieved citizens represent another horrendous stain on the reputations of law enforcement officers everywhere who risk their lives to protect us every day. But our unhinged president’s callous, deliberate disregard for everything but stoking his base in a re-election year is even worse.