Asked about what motivated those protesters to protest, though, Americans saw a variety of contributing factors beyond just Floyd’s death. A Pew Research Center poll released Friday found that more than half of Americans think four different things played a substantial role in the demonstrations: anger over Floyd’s death, tensions between black Americans and police, long-standing concerns about how black people are treated in America and opportunism on the part of some participants to commit criminal acts.
Black and white respondents diverged quite a bit on those last two causes, with black respondents being far more likely to cite endemic mistreatment and white people more likely to blame criminal opportunists. White respondents were about as likely to cite either of those two reasons, while black respondents were far more likely to say that mistreatment was a major factor.
This overlaps with party to some extent. The partisan gaps were far wider across the board, with Republicans (and Republican-leading independents) being most likely to identify people taking advantage of the situation to commit crimes as having contributed a great deal to the demonstrations. Less than half of Republicans — the vast majority of whom are white — thought that long-standing concerns about mistreatment of black Americans contributed a great deal.
This is, frankly, an unexpected result. While one might disagree that black people face particular mistreatment in American society (which many Republicans do), it’s clear that such concerns are a primary factor in the demonstrations. The Black Lives Matter movement isn’t only about the relationship between police and black Americans but also about how that relationship reflects broader systemic problems centered on race.
Regardless, the results of Pew’s survey suggest that most Americans understand key factors in the protests. An interview President Trump conducted with Fox News’s Harris Faulkner on Thursday, though, raises the question of the degree to which the president understands them. Or if he understands them at all.
Faulkner, who is black, noted that Trump’s response to the video of Floyd’s death was necessarily different from her own.
“I’m curious,” she said. “What do you think the protesters — not the looters and the rioters, we’re intelligent enough to know the difference in our country — what do you think they want? What do you think they need right now from you?”
“So I think you had protesters for different reasons and then you had protesting also because, you know, they just didn’t know,” Trump replied. “I’ve watched — I watched it very closely. Why are you here? And they really weren’t able to say, but they were there for a reason, perhaps. But a lot of them really were there because they’re following the crowd.”
In other words, Trump’s initial response to the question is that the people who were participating in the demonstrations — a group that certainly numbered in the hundreds of thousands — mostly didn’t know why they were doing so. Or were doing so to fit in.
He then cited one reason, at least.
“A lot of them were there because what we witnessed was a terrible thing,” he continued. “What we saw was a terrible thing. And we’ve seen it over the years. We have a — you know, this was one horrible example, but you’ve seen other terrible examples. You know that, better than anybody would — would know it. And — and I know it. I’ve seen it, too. I’ve seen it before I was president and during the presidency I’ve seen it.”
It’s fascinating to watch Trump in moments like this, as his brain shifts to accommodate and refine points that are already at their hyperbolic extremes. He starts by noting that anger over Floyd’s death prompted “a lot of them” to participate in the protests, mirroring the 6 in 10 other Republicans who acknowledged that as a factor. He then pointedly notes that this isn’t the first such incident, a default attempt to shift blame off himself.
He tells Faulkner that she knows better than anyone that there have been other terrible examples, though it’s not clear why she would. But that, too, is too far: He wants to demonstrate that his knowledge is as extensive as anyone’s and that this isn’t new terrain for him. So he adds that he knows about these incidents and has seen them, too.
“What do you say to them?” Faulkner then asked, continuing her question about what message Trump wanted to send to those engaged in the protests.
Trump apparently thought she was referring to the police.
“I think it’s a shame. I think it’s a disgrace. And it’s got to stop,” Trump replied. “At the same time, you also know that we have incredible people in law enforcement. And we have to cherish them and take care of them. And we can’t let something like this where you have a bad apple go out and, you know, destroy the image of a whole — of millions of people that take really good care of us.”
There are about 800,000 police and detectives in the United States.
“And then you have a movement where they say, let’s not have a police department,” Trump then added. “And you say, where are these people coming from?”
This, too, is a signature Trump move. Pivot from the issue at hand to the politics, misrepresenting the “defund the police” rhetoric to bash Democrats — and, more directly, the protesters.
Faulkner didn’t press the issue. She should have.
It’s important that the president be able to articulate why the protests are happening. It’s probably not the case that, without Pew’s proposed reasons, many respondents would have selected the four possible causes the pollsters offered. But a poll respondent isn’t the president. Just as people broadly should know that concerns about systemic mistreatment of black people in America are a factor in the outpouring of frustration, Trump should certainly know that.
Faulkner at one point asked Trump whether he was the president who could unite the country.
“I certainly think so, and I certainly hope so,” Trump replied. He then pushed blame for discontent outward, disparaging China for the coronavirus pandemic.
“And then on top of it, we had the riots,” he continued, “which were unnecessary to the extent they were. If the governors and mayors would have taken a stronger action, I think the riots would have been — you could call them protesters, you could call them riots. There were different nights, different things.”
This is why Faulkner pointedly separated the rioters from the protesters when she asked her question. Trump doesn’t always see a clear distinction between them — which certainly doesn’t suggest that he’s spending much time considering what the protesters are concerned about.
Trump has, on multiple occasions, read scripted comments about Floyd’s death. He has not, however, broached the subject of racial justice in any meaningful way.
Based on his conversation with Faulkner, it’s not clear that he understands why he should.