In that year’s roiling tension between the Black Lives Matter movement and the less formal “blue lives matter” response, Trump sided with the latter. He called Black Lives Matter a “threat,” accusing it of spurring violence against police.
“It is time for the hostility against our police, and against all members of law enforcement, to end — and to end right now,” Trump said in a speech in July 2016. “I want our nation’s police to know that we thank you, and we support you, and we will always stand with you."
He embraced the police as partners, repeatedly assuring voters that he would further empower law enforcement. Restrictions against repurposing military equipment implemented after unrest in Ferguson, Mo., would be rolled back. He called for more police officers, just as he called for an expansion of the military. He suggested that New York’s stop-and-frisk policy — which disproportionately targeted nonwhite residents — should be expanded nationally.
He had often praise the police during his rallies, with the crowd frequently responding with chants of “U-S-A!” Trump won the Republican Party’s nomination in large part because of his willingness to espouse hard-line views that his peers would avoid. His position on law enforcement wasn’t an exception.
At the same time, Trump made generally halfhearted appeals to black voters. His pitch was summarized with a shrugging “What do you have to lose?” during a number of speeches late in the campaign. He repeatedly assured black voters that he’d clean up the inner cities, conflating poorer urban areas with the lives of black Americans broadly. One report a few days before the election indicated that his campaign was focused explicitly on tamping down black turnout. When black turnout was indeed lower, Trump publicly thanked them for staying home.
Now, Trump’s position is different. His campaign has invested heavily in trying to peel black voters away from the Democratic Party, making repeated pitches to black Americans. The campaign has held a number of events focused on blacks and elevated black surrogates. In the past week, he has invested a lot of energy in elevating a comment from former vice president Joe Biden in which Biden criticized black Americans who might consider backing Trump.
Then Minnesota erupted.
The protests that followed the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis have reignited a focus on how black Americans are treated by law enforcement. People have taken to the streets in a number of cities, risking exposure to the coronavirus to draw attention to the manner in which police wield their power against minority communities. At times, those protests have led to violence and property damage.
Until Thursday, the White House had been carefully supportive of the reaction to Floyd’s death. White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters that Trump had seen a video of the incident and was “very upset” by it. Trump himself said it was “shocking” and pledged on Twitter that federal investigators would probe the “very sad and tragic death.”
Then, late Thursday night, Trump tweeted about the violence at the protests.
“These THUGS are dishonoring the memory of George Floyd, and I won’t let that happen,” he wrote on Twitter. “Just spoke to Governor Tim Walz and told him that the Military is with him all the way. Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
Twitter flagged the tweet as “glorifying violence,” given the reference to shooting.
Trump wants to appeal to black voters, but he needs to demonstrate toughness to his base. His base, like himself, is far more sympathetic to the law enforcement side of the equation than to the issues being raised by the Black Lives Matter movement. While Democrats responded to the emergence of the movement by becoming more sympathetic to the idea that racial discrimination drove economic inequality, Republicans didn’t. A July 2016 Monmouth University poll found that Republicans, unlike Democrats and independents, were more likely to say that Black Lives Matter had made racial issues worse than that the movement had brought attention to real disparities.
Twitter’s effort to limit the reach of Trump’s apparent threat prompted his adviser Dan Scavino, who manages Trump’s social media presence, to criticize the company in a tweet of his own.
It was likely Scavino who tweeted Trump’s comments from the official White House account, seeming to dare Twitter to take a similar action. Twitter obliged.
Notice, though, the criticism buried in Scavino’s tweet. It’s not just that Twitter flagged Trump’s tweet. It’s that they did so while “turning their heads to protest organizers who are planning, plotting, and communicating their next moves” on the platform. Which, of course, is completely legal. Scavino, an official within the White House, is criticizing a private company for allowing Americans to exercise free speech in support of exercising their right to protest.
Scavino’s position is nonetheless certainly in line with much of Trump’s base, both in criticizing Twitter’s efforts to get Trump to adhere to its rules and in how he views the protests themselves. But that’s not what the campaign wants to present to black voters.
So we get tweets like this one from the campaign’s social media team, taking the remarkable step of defending CNN after three of its journalists were arrested early Friday.
The same account’s past tweets about CNN were … less supportive.
This exception is partly an attempt to focus blame on Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz (D), as Trump did in his tweet, and partly an effort to highlight Trump’s position on the Floyd killing. The campaign wants black people to know that Trump is pushing for justice in the case — even as Trump himself is suggesting that those who protest Floyd’s killing by damaging property or stealing might be shot.
So far, Trump has been able to avoid having to choose between supporting the police in Minnesota and supporting the protests against Floyd’s death. In part, that’s a function of the breadth of condemnation of how Floyd’s death occurred. The National Fraternal Order of Police — which endorsed Trump in 2016 — released a statement criticizing how Floyd’s death occurred. But he has been unable to avoid the tension between recognizing the outrage of black Americans at what happened in Minneapolis and his need to demonstrate his own hyperbolic toughness.
It’s a tension that may not be resolvable. He can’t and shouldn’t endorse violent acts, of course, but it’s hard not to contrast his response to armed protesters gathering in Michigan in opposition to efforts to contain the coronavirus with his silence on nonviolent protests focused on race.
“The Governor of Michigan should give a little, and put out the fire,” Trump wrote on Twitter earlier this month. “These are very good people, but they are angry. They want their lives back again, safely! See them, talk to them, make a deal."
Those protesters overlapped with Trump’s political base. The protesters speaking out against Floyd’s death specifically and law enforcement’s approach to nonwhite communities more broadly don’t.
Trump could offer a nuanced assessment of the moment. He still may. But in evaluating how Trump wants to balance toughness with outreach to the black community, his first comment about the Floyd protests was to evoke a phrase from a controversial Florida police chief threatening lethal violence against those who commit property damage.