What’s not good is that this is all Trump seems to offer more than three months after the killing of George Floyd launched the waves of protests and riots that increasingly rivet the nation’s attention. Nor has the administration addressed the underlying causes of police violence and public discontent. A president is not a dictator, and he does not have the power to jump in and solve local crime problems at the drop of a hat. But this has become a national problem, and it requires national leadership. On this score, Trump has been totally lacking.
Trump has residual power to do a lot to halt the violence. If organized groups are coordinating violent demonstrations, they likely are doing so across state lines and using electronic communications. Such groups could also be using stolen goods from these operations to finance further planning. This activity likely violates federal laws, and as such, could be the focus of federal investigations. Trump could order Attorney General William P. Barr to explore how federal laws are being potentially violated by groups conspiring to cause violent unrest and order federal law enforcement to arrest perpetrators. He has not done so to the best of our knowledge.
More important is the presidency’s bully pulpit. Trump could and should convene private meetings of leaders from affected places to find common ground. Most of these people don’t trust Trump, and Trump doesn’t trust them. But as president of the nation, Trump needs to try to put enmity aside for the public good. He owes it to all of us to at least try to solve a problem rather than use it as a wedge issue for the campaign. But again, he has not made such entreaties to the best our knowledge.
Trump seems to think that the only response to rioting is brute force. He is right that the unwillingness of many local leaders to address violence is a big reason the rioting continues and spreads. But force is never the only answer to a problem in a democracy, and a failure to address the root causes of the violence means it will likely spring up again every time a police officer wounds or kills a black person in questionable circumstances. Trump has not even tried to offer national leadership on matters of police reform, leaving partisans in Congress to fill the void. The predictable result is stalemate and inaction.
Trump has also failed to calm his supporters as many increasingly see themselves under threat. Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old charged with killing two protesters in Kenosha, has a plausible claim of self-defense, but he should never have been in Kenosha in the first place. Nor should a large caravan of Trump supporters have driven to Portland to confront the rioters and protesters who have made the Rose City a war zone. It’s one thing to stand one’s ground when your life, home or business is under direct assault. It’s another to go seek out trouble somewhere else. Trump needs to tell his people to stay put and stay calm.
The riots increasingly look like a modern version of “Bleeding Kansas,” the violent confrontation between pro- and anti-slavery groups that preceded the Civil War. Activists and agitators on both sides of the slavery question flocked to the territory after the Kansas-Nebraska Act repealed the Missouri Compromise and made it possible for slave states in the region to form if the proposed state’s citizens voted for it. Murders and massacres occurred for years as the warring sides took vengeance on their foes. Feckless national and local leadership combined with underlying incompatibility between pro- and anti-slavery views kept the violence simmering until it broke forth after the South’s secession.
Trump nominally belongs to the party of Lincoln, but in this crisis, he is more like a blustering version of Lincoln’s ineffectual predecessor, James Buchanan. Our nation needs, and deserves, much more.
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