Trump read an announcement off a teleprompter that he was severing the United States’ relationship with the World Health Organization, and another that he is ending most of the preferential treatment that Hong Kong receives under an array of agreements. Then he turned around and left.
That was, we were left to suppose, a statement in itself. Trump was declaring, essentially, that his tweets said everything he had to say about the death of George Floyd and its aftermath. On Friday, those tweets included one, sent around 1 a.m., that warned “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” When Twitter put an advisory on Trump’s tweet, noting that it violated the platform’s rules about glorifying violence, the official White House Twitter account repeated the tweet. It too was slapped with an advisory.
Those particular words have a noteworthy heritage: In 1967, they were uttered by a bigoted Miami police chief named Walter Headley, who armed his officers with shotguns and dogs and told them to “get tough” when they went into what was then known as the “Negro ghetto.” The phrase about looting and shooting resonated with the fears and biases of white America. One Ohio man sent Headley a dollar and told him to “buy some slugs with this.”
It might be possible to see Trump’s appropriation of Headley’s doctrine as a coincidence, if he did not so frequently repeat other racist dog whistles of the late ’60s. He speaks about “law and order” and the “silent majority” the way that Richard M. Nixon did, as the 37th president pursued the notorious “Southern Strategy” — by which Republicans won the states of the former Confederacy by stoking racial fears in the wake of desegregation.
Shortly before Trump’s Friday appearance, his presumptive Democratic opponent offered a glimpse of how a better president might have handled such a situation.
During an address delivered over the Internet, former vice president Joe Biden reminded the rest of the country that what made the circumstances of Floyd’s death unique was not the manner in which it happened. It was the fact that — this time — all of us were witnesses to an unarmed black man gasping his last breaths with a policeman’s knee bearing down on his neck.
“The original sin of this country still stains our nation today,” Biden said. “And sometimes we manage to overlook it. We just push forward with a thousand other tasks in our daily life. But it’s always there. And weeks like this, we see it plainly that we’re a country with an open wound.”
Biden also noted that he had spoken with Floyd’s grieving relatives, which is something that Trump had yet to do. The former vice president promised the family that “we will do everything in our power to see to it that justice is had.”
It is still unclear where all of this is taking us as we approach the midpoint of a volatile election year in which the country is already dealing with a crippling health crisis. If violence and property destruction continue and spread, Trump may be right in his apparent bet that a backlash could benefit his reelection chances.
Meanwhile, Biden should consider whether this is the point at which he should don a mask and leave the confines of his home to speak more forcefully.
The late ’60s offer a model for that as well: It is Robert F. Kennedy, a presidential candidate who climbed onto a flatbed truck in Indianapolis in the hours after the April 1968 assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and appealed for calm. He had disregarded pleas from the local police chief against wading into a largely African American crowd that had not yet heard the news.
Though Kennedy was a white man of enormous privilege, he spoke with the moral authority of one who had lost his own brother to a murderer’s bullet. Quoting his favorite poet Aeschylus, Kennedy said: “In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
He added: “Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”
The city in which he spoke was one of the few major urban areas that remained calm that night in the face of awful tragedy.
Barely two months later, Kennedy himself would be slain. But the words he said still live. They speak not only to what this country can still become, but its need for a leader who can point the way in that direction.