But the 45th commander in chief of the United States knew better: “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now,” President Trump proclaimed in his inaugural address. If you were one of the white people he was talking to, maybe you didn’t know whether to be afraid — What carnage? How did I miss it? — or relieved. In any event, the new president planned to stop it “right here” and “right now.” Trump was at once the oncologist who diagnosed the cancer and the surgeon who cut it out.
Those of us who carry the scars of American history in our DNA, though, we knew. Trump meant that he was coming for black and brown people, and he was going to make a performance of it. We were responsible for the “crime and gangs and drugs that have … robbed our country of so much unrealized potential.” We were not the people who “will be protected by the great men and women of our military and law enforcement.” We were, instead, their targets.
This part was not so new. For U.S. presidents, toughness has almost always meant that you get tough on black people, as if centuries of slavery and segregation were insufficient. What Trump brought to that familiar formulation was a sense of false bravado, the bullying of a billionaire who took out ads calling for black teenagers to be put to death and who referred to majority-black nations as “shithole countries.” The rap group Public Enemy named its second album “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” and damned if Trump, as the leader of that nation, wasn’t going to pretend like he was the man for the job.
But the blustery weak bully behind the curtain got exposed last week. “When the looting starts, the shooting starts” is what he said, and it seemed like just another one of his threats, except with an unusually overt nod to white supremacy. Like the “American carnage” that “stops right now,” the threat both warned of danger and promised retribution. Except that when the looting started — even though it was dwarfed by peaceful protest and didn’t happen near the White House, in any case — what Trump actually did was run. Protesters breached a barrier near the White House, and the Secret Service rushed the president to a secure bunker. It seems like a reasonable precaution for the most powerful person in the world, but when word got out, Trump sought to reassure his audience. He tweeted that he “couldn’t have felt more safe.”
The president wanted the world to know his security detail handled protesters who “got too frisky or out of line” by coming “down on them, hard — didn’t know what hit them.” There was the glory — “We put the young ones on the front line, sir, they love it, and … good practice” — and the blood: If the invaders had gotten any closer, they “would have been greeted with the most vicious dogs, and most ominous weapons.”
What came next was straight-up violent. One of my students had asked, with the future lawyer’s uneasy mix of wokeness and professional ambition, if she should go to the protest in Lafayette Square. She’d be fine, I told her, as long as she followed the rules and left before the curfew. Rubber bullets, flash grenades, charging horses and tear gas told me how naive I was, as though I’d slept through the previous three years. The uniforms — the Secret Service, U.S. Park Police, U.S. Military Police and D.C. National Guard, among others — fired away, before the curfew, to clear the park so the president could bravely walk through it, on his way to the outside of a church, to hold up a Bible. The president’s men extinguished any possible source of fear so that he could act out the part of a man who is not, and never will be, afraid.
Security theater, according to Bruce Schneier, who coined the term, consists of “measures that make us feel safer without improving security.” When we feel threatened, we’re happy to take the most unlikely precautions to assure ourselves that we’re safe, even if those precautions are useless. As the president must have learned during his time in professional wrestling, you don’t have to believe something is real to find comfort in it. But I still want to know why he — and those who ally themselves with him — seems to need this comfort so badly. I am concerned that the answer might be because of me. Because of white anxiety about African American men.
Black men are the monsters of the American nightmare, and not just for Trump. People fear many things that they, as individuals, can do little to control — from the cratering economy to climate change — which makes it all the more pressing for our leaders to show us that they can keep us safe. The obligation to assuage and comfort white men has long been central to race relations in this country.
In Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court case that made Jim Crow “separate but equal” segregation constitutional, one justice wrote, “Sixty millions of whites are in no danger from the presence here of eight millions of blacks. The destinies of the two races in this country are indissolubly linked together, and the interests of both require that the common government of all shall not permit the seeds of race hate to be planted under the sanction of law.” The author of that statement was John Marshall Harlan, the lone dissenter in the case. Even in arguing against segregation, he felt compelled to ensure white people of their safety.
This country punishes black people — people who never really threatened it except insofar as we came to represent the very idea of threat — not to reprove us for what we’ve done, but to assuage anxieties about what we might do. It punishes us so that white people can act as if they were never afraid in the first place, so that they can claim, as Trump did, that they were never hiding in the bunker, just inspecting it.
For the past 50 years, every man who has been elected president has taken steps during his campaign to send a message to voters that he will be tough on black men. Richard M. Nixon said, “It’s all about law and order and the damn Negro-Puerto Rican groups out there.” Ronald Reagan complained about crimes by “strapping young bucks.” Jimmy Carter spoke out against forced integration, saying, “What I say is the government ought not take as a major purpose the intrusion of alien groups into a neighborhood, simply to establish that intrusion.” George H.W. Bush ran a campaign commercial featuring a black man they called Willie Horton (he called himself “William”), who raped a white woman while on furlough from prison in Massachusetts.
Bill Clinton left the campaign trail to oversee the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, a black man who was so intellectually disabled that when the prison guard came to take him to the death chamber, Rector set aside the pecan pie he had ordered for his last meal because he was “saving it for later.” George W. Bush solicited the endorsement of the Fraternal Order of Police, promising he would stop the Justice Department from “constantly second guessing local law enforcement decisions.” During his first presidential campaign, even Barack Obama mocked “gangbangers,” saying they are so lazy they ask, “Why I gotta do it? Why can’t Pookie do it?” Obama went on, during his presidency, to champion more progressive polices than his predecessors but the bar was quite low.
The fear of black men is embedded in U.S. politics and law, especially in what is known, aspirationally, as “criminal justice.” If Trump is the inheritor of this tradition, he has also been, as usual, the most explicit recent manifestation of it. On the campaign trail in 2016, he said: “We have a situation where we have our inner cities — African Americans and Hispanics are living in hell because it’s so dangerous. You walk down the street, you get shot.” You don’t need a dog’s ears to hear whom he was speaking to there, who was supposed to have felt threatened. And whom he was threatening in return. It turned out to be a winning message for Trump, and his victory set the stage for the American carnage in Lafayette Square.