White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany on Monday afternoon sought to put a good face on the severity of Trump’s comments, saying that “what the president has said is he wants to dominate the streets with National Guard, with a police presence” that “actually de-escalates the situation and causes less civil unrest.”
Trump’s comments, though, suggested something much more significant — including the harsh penalties for those who run afoul of law enforcement, and a militaristic approach.
It was a bold proposal from Trump. But it’s also wholly predictable that Trump would go down this road, given his past comments about such demonstrations.
Shortly after Trump’s comments leaked to the news media on Monday, observers pointed to somewhat similar comments he made to Playboy about China’s handling of the Tiananmen Square demonstrators in 1990. In them, he hailed China’s strength in putting down the protest.
“When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it,” Trump said. “Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength. Our country is right now perceived as weak.”
While making that point, Trump also suggested that the Soviet Union suffered from the same problem — a lack of a “firm enough hand.”
“What you will see there soon is a revolution; the signs are all there with the demonstrations and picketing,” Trump said. “Russia is out of control, and the leadership knows it. That’s my problem with [Mikhail] Gorbachev. Not a firm enough hand.”
Trump was confronted with these remarks during the 2016 campaign, and he sought to argue that he hadn’t technically endorsed the Chinese approach in Tiananmen. (“I said they put down a riot viciously, horribly, strongly. I don’t say they were right. They weren’t right.”) But it’s clear that he was favorably comparing its ability to put down unrest to both the United States and the Soviets.
Another key element here is how Trump views such protests: as a reflection on leaders like him. During the Obama administration, he repeatedly lifted up racial unrest in Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere as a referendum on President Barack Obama and other leaders in Washington.
“Can you imagine what [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and all of our friends and enemies throughout the world are saying about the U.S. as they watch the Ferguson riot?” he asked in 2014.
He would add the same day: “As China and the rest of the World continue to rip off the U.S. economically, they laugh at us and our president over the riots in Ferguson!” And: “Our country is totally fractured and, with our weak leadership in Washington, you can expect Ferguson type riots and looting in other places.”
During riots in Baltimore in 2015, Trump echoed this point.
“I wonder what the rest of the world is thinking about the United States as they watch the disgusting and out of control Baltimore riots?” he said.
In response to the Baltimore unrest, Trump offered another telling comment about the situation, blaming the police for not doing more to squash the rioting and looting.
“Blatant and rampant property destruction in Baltimore as the police stand by and watch,” he said. “Should be a lesson on how NOT to handle riots. SAD!”
Those comments — along with the ones about Tiananmen — feel particularly relevant to where we are today. Trump has long telegraphed a desire for more aggressive police tactics. He has also played up the strength of foreign leaders who just so happen to also have awful human-rights records — including Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.
Combine all that with a president who seems to view racial unrest as a poor reflection on our nation’s highest leaders, and it shouldn’t be surprising that Trump is pushing for a more militaristic response.