In nature, an animal is most dangerous when cornered and wounded. The same is proving true in the closing months of President Trump’s term.

Trump botched the coronavirus pandemic, bungled the economic recovery and flubbed the handling of civil rights demonstrations. Members of his own family denounce him. He faces a seemingly insurmountable deficit against challenger Joe Biden.

And so the president is trying to provoke a race war on the streets of America.

“We’ve arrived at a moment in this campaign,” Biden said during a visit to a rehabilitated Pittsburgh steel mill Monday, that “we all knew . . . we’d get to — the moment when Donald Trump would be so desperate, he’d do anything to hold on to power.”

After violence claimed lives on both sides of the divide between racial-justice demonstrators and Trump supporters in recent days, Biden said Trump “fans the flames” of violence. “He can’t stop the violence because, for years, he’s fomented it.”

Biden quoted from departing Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway’s acknowledgment that “the more chaos and anarchy and vandalism and violence reigns, the better it is” for the president. Said Biden: “He’s rooting for chaos and violence.”

When the president’s supporters, often armed, drive into cities to provoke racial-justice demonstrators, Trump calls them “GREAT PATRIOTS!” His convention glorified vigilantes who took up arms against protesters — “disgraceful anarchists” and “thugs” in Trump’s telling. The president declares that the backlash against demonstrators by his supporters “cannot be unexpected” and says that “the only way you will stop the violence in the high crime Democrat run cities is through strength!” He proposes that the far-right militia member who allegedly killed two protesters in Wisconsin acted in self-defense.

The White House is considering President Trump holding an address to the nation on race and unity. Columnist Dana Milbank says he's already given it. (Dana Milbank/The Washington Post)

Trump is doing this because, he thinks, White suburban women will be frightened and will vote for him to protect them. They should be frightened — by a leader who instigates bloodshed to promote selfish ends.

Follow Dana Milbank‘s opinionsFollowAdd

There’s plenty of blame to go around for the violence: far-left “antifa,” far-right militias and opportunists and criminals of all variety. What’s needed to calm the situation is for leaders to denounce violence in all forms.

“I want to make it absolutely clear,” Biden said in Pittsburgh — chosen instead of Wisconsin, where Trump is scheduled to travel Tuesday, to avoid further inflammation. “Rioting is not protesting. Looting is not protesting. Setting fires is not protesting. . . . It’s lawlessness, plain and simple, and those who do it should be prosecuted. Violence will not bring change, it’ll only bring destruction. It’s wrong in every way.”

And Trump? Invited at a news conference Monday evening to condemn violence by his supporters, he declined.

This matters. Preliminary new research from political scientists at the University of Maryland and Louisiana State University suggests that neither side is inherently more violent; about 10 percent of Americans, equally divided between right and left, condone political violence, and only a tiny fraction of them are actually violent.

But the researchers also found that when those prone to violence were read a statement by either Biden or Trump condemning violence, they became 20 percent less likely to support political violence. The more partisan, the greater the effect. “Without a message of anti-violence, the strong partisans are more violent,” Lilliana Mason, an associate professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, tells me.

That’s why Trump’s leadership is so deadly. The Anti-Defamation League found that four of the five years Trump has been on the national scene have set records for extremist-related violence. In 2019, right-wing fanatics were responsible for 90 percent of extremist-related murders. Elizabeth Neumann, who recently resigned a high-level position in Trump’s Department of Homeland Security, told Yahoo News that “you have right-wing extremists coming in trying to take advantage of the cover of the protests to carry out these violent acts and they are trying to start a race war.”

Trump, who likes to say his supporters are “much tougher” than the other side, has routinely spouted violent notions. “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” “Vicious dogs.” “Dominate the streets.” “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” “Knock the crap out of them.” “Very fine people on both sides.” “I’d like to punch him in the face.” “Enemy of the people.” “Any guy that can do a body slam, he is my type.” “The audience hit back. That’s what we need a little more of.”

The potential for political violence has grown as parties polarized by race and racial attitudes. Only leaders’ restraint has avoided a conflagration up to now. But Trump has unleashed the hellhounds, and it won’t be easy to stop.

“I look at this violence and I see lives and communities and the dreams of small businesses being destroyed,” Biden said from Pittsburgh in his latest anti-violence plea. “Donald Trump looks at this violence and he sees a political lifeline.”

Biden is doing his part. But calm won’t come unless and until the American president acts like a human being — not a cornered animal.

Read more: