We need to more fully come to terms with an unpleasant truth. It begins here: Donald Trump simply does not accept that he has any institutional obligation of any kind as president to use the White House’s formidable communications powers to calm the nation at moments of severe tension and hardship.

Instead, he views it as beneficial to his reelection to actively incite further hatred. Because Trump’s self-interest matters incalculably more to him than the national interest does, he’s now doing just that.

Trump issued new tweets overnight that explicitly threatened military violence against looters in Minneapolis, where protests have erupted over the police killing of George Floyd.

“Just spoke to Governor Tim Walz, and told him that the Military is with him all the way,” Trump said, in a reference to the governor of Minnesota. “Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts. Thank you!”

Twitter affixed a warning to this, noting it had violated its rules “about glorifying violence.”

Setting aside whether Trump will or even can do this, the intent of the threat itself is the thing here — not just to glorify violence but to glorify his willingness to threaten it against urban protesters, should they get out of hand.

The “thank you,” a phrase that often follows Trump’s tweeted self-praise, is a dead giveaway. It’s almost as if he’s taking a bow for having issued this threat, or saying he should be thanked for it.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

A sharp contrast with Biden

Joe Biden offered another approach. At a fundraiser, he appealed for calm while also calling for justice for the Floyd family and acknowledging the legitimate grievances of the protesters about systemic racism and police brutality.

Biden noted that Floyd’s “final words” were “Let me breathe, I can’t breathe,” and added that this has “ripped open anew” the “wound” wrought by racism. Biden continued:

I urge the protesters to exercise their rights peacefully and safely. But people all across this country are enraged and rightly so. Every day African Americans go about their lives with constant anxiety and trauma of wondering, “Will I be next?” Sounds like an exaggeration but it’s not. These tragedies, these injustices, cut at the very heart of our most sacred of beliefs: that all Americans, equal in rights and in dignity, are part of an ingrained systemic cycle of racism and oppression...throughout every part of our society.

And Biden concluded:

If we’re not committed as a nation, with every ounce of purpose in our beings — not just to binding up this wound in hope that somehow the scab once again will cover things over — but to treat the underlying injury, we’re never going to eventually heal.

Biden must now seize this moment and make a case along these lines in a far more public way.

The core difference here is the recognition of a broader historical and societal context in which the protesters actually do have legitimate grievances. A good New York Times piece lays out the broader legacy of racism and inequality fueling the protests, crucially noting that much of that legacy is the result of government policies.

What we want from presidents

We want presidents to speak to those deeper grievances (as well as to the immediate injustice) in a searching way at times like these, both so they are heard (which itself might have a calming effect) and not forgotten, and so the country is reminded of them at a moment when the temptation toward white backlash is powerful.

This is even more urgent, because it’s now clear Trump is betting on inciting such white backlash to get past his monstrous failure on the coronavirus and the economic depression it helped usher in.

We’ve seen Trump deliberately court white backlash — rather than recognize any institutional obligation to appeal for calm and unity — at other moments of extreme difficulty for the country. Trump refused to unambiguously condemn white-supremacist violence in Charlottesville, and afterwards, he reportedly felt “vindicated,” because he thought his base would cheer him for it.

Coming to terms with the moment requires dispensing with euphemisms. It’s often said Trump is “stoking division” or “lighting a tinderbox” or some such phrase, as if he’s merely encouraging equivalent tensions on two opposing sides.

But this obscures the degree to which Trump is engaged in overt one-way racial incitement, that is, the incitement of white-against-nonwhite backlash. Paradoxically, those euphemistic formulations de-racialize the true nature of what Trump is really up to.

Dreams of a silent majority

One of our best historians of white backlash is Rick Perlstein, the author of “Nixonland.” Perlstein points out that Trump still mentally dwells in the wrenching transitions of the late 1960s and early 1970s, a time when Richard M. Nixon used coded racial “law and order” messaging to appeal to the “silent majority.”

“Urban disorder was skyrocketing, and Nixon promised to let you retreat back behind your white picket fence,” Perlstein told me, adding that Trump’s intimations of violence toward looters reactivate such tropes, under which “blacks are threats and whites are threatened.”

As Adam Serwer has demonstrated, a similarly racialized subtext has threaded through Trump’s whole presidency, which has been shaped around an “explicitly discriminatory agenda that valorizes cruelty.”

But is there still such a silent majority?

When we talk about whether Trump can win back the suburbs, what we really mean is: Can Trump win back the white, educated suburbanites he alienated? Trump thought he could in 2018 by relentlessly painting nonwhite immigrants as criminals and murderers, even unnecessarily sending in the military to “guard” against desperate migrants, another tacit suggestion of the willingness to use violence.

It didn’t work — arguably that continued alienating many of those white voters. But he plainly thinks he can do so now — or, at least, that he can activate just enough of his mostly white base to win silent majorities in just enough states to squeak through the electoral college.

Biden has campaigned in no small part by simply showing us the better alternative president we might have. He has done so again with his comments on the riots. But he must seize this moment in a much higher-profile way.


Update: Biden has now offered public remarks about the killing and the reaction to it that are broadly similar to the ones quoted above. The question now is whether he will continue elevating the public argument in this manner in coming days.

This rendition of the poem ‘Black 101’ memorializes the innocent lives poet Frank X Walker says are terrorized by white rage, including jogger Ahmaud Arbery. (Frank X Walker/The Washington Post)

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