Just before 1 a.m. ET on Friday morning, the President of the United States got on Twitter and decided to offer his thoughts about the ongoing unrest in Minnesota following the release of video footage showing the death of an unarmed black man named George Floyd while he was being taken into custody by police.
“I can’t stand back & watch this happen to a great American City, Minneapolis. A total lack of leadership. Either the very weak Radical Left Mayor, Jacob Frey, get his act together and bring the City under control, or I will send in the National Guard & get the job done right. These THUGS are dishonoring the memory of George Floyd, and I won’t let that happen. Just spoke to Governor Tim Walz and told him that the Military is with him all the way. Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts. Thank you!”
The second part of that tweet — beginning with “These THUGS” — was flagged by Twitter for “glorifying violence” and hidden in Trump’s feed, the latest move in an ongoing fight between the President and the social media giant.
But let’s not lose the forest for the trees here. Yes, it’s a big deal that Twitter has put a warning label on a tweet from the President. But the MUCH bigger deal is that the President of the United States is, again, abandoning any sort of moral leadership in a moment of national crisis — choosing instead to inflame and incite rather than instill calm.
Look specifically at what Trump tweeted. The use of the word “THUGS” is clearly coded racial language. As John McWhorter, an associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, told NPR in 2015:
“When somebody talks about thugs ruining a place, it is almost impossible today that they are referring to somebody with blond hair. It is a sly way of saying there go those black people ruining things again. And so anybody who wonders whether thug is becoming the new N-word doesn’t need to. It’s most certainly is.”
(Worth noting: McWhorter was discussing the use of the word by then-President Barack Obama and then-Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake in response to protests in Baltimore following the death of an African-American man named Freddie Gray while in police custody. Both Obama and Rawlings-Blake are black and Democrats.)
Then there is this line from Trump: “Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” If you don’t think that is a direct threat of violence by the President of the United States to the protesters in Minnesota, you simply aren’t paying attention.
“[It] mirrors language used by a Miami police chief in the late 1960s in the wake of riots. Its use was immediately condemned by a wide array of individuals, from historians to members of rival political campaigns.”
And I’d add that the Miami police chief in question — Walter Headley — also infamously said that “young hoodlums” were taking advantage of civil rights and that he planned to use shotguns and dogs in Miami’s African American areas to bring order.
That Trump has abandoned — or refused to acknowledge — the idea of the presidency as a position of moral leadership is sad but not shocking. He has done so repeatedly during his first three-plus years in office, most notably when he argued that there were “very fine people on both sides” of the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, that left a young woman dead in 2017.
While Trump has insisted repeatedly that he is the “least racist person you’ll find anywhere in the world,” his reactions to Charlottesville and Minnesota suggest otherwise.
When faced with a difficult situation, Trump leans on both-sider-ism and old racial tropes. Rather than at least attempting to provide some sort of moral clarity to both those protesting and the police charged with keeping order, Trump blurs the lines even more with incitements and threats.
Can you imagine if Trump had simply tweeted something like this: “George Floyd’s death cannot be in vain. We must reform the ways in which African Americans are treated by those tasked with protecting them. I don’t condone any violence in the protests caused by Mr. Floyd’s death but I do understand the anger, fear and mistrust that are at the root of them.”
That tweet alone — if Trump had sent it — wouldn’t have ended the protests. Or made the anger and fear and lack of trust disappear. But it might have provided a pause. A cooling-off period. A ratcheting down of tensions.
Instead, Trump took his own can of gasoline and squirted the entire contents onto an already raging fire. Because he can’t put the “we” ahead of the “me.” Because he can’t see beyond his own biases and his own political calculations. Because he has absolutely no clue what moral leadership in a president looks like.