In his speech in the Rose Garden on Monday, Donald Trump dared the rioters to enter a test of wills. The present unrest began as a series of demonstrations against police brutality in Minneapolis, and then degenerated into riots there and in other major cities. Trump is now making them about his ability to “dominate the streets”:
Today, I have strongly recommended to every governor to deploy the National Guard in sufficient numbers that we dominate the streets. Mayors and governors must establish an overwhelming law-enforcement presence until the violence has been quelled.
If a city or a state refuses to take the actions that are necessary to defend the life and property of their residents, then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them.
In other words: If the streets are cleaned up, Trump wins; if not, he loses.
This was the next turn of the worm. Progressive commentators who had originally hailed the “uprising” late last week showed their doubts over the weekend. As the general horror at the disorder began to dawn on them, Democratic mayors in burning cities spread ludicrously false rumors that the majority of malefactors were from out of state or even foreign subversives. Of course they had to do so. Elite constituencies in these cities demand protection for their homes, but they also demand protection of their precious political mythology that all malefactors are Evangelicals or Russians or incels. Blaming the Right was a precondition of using force to restore order.
Trump’s speech interrupted this dynamic. Intellectuals and social media took Trump’s stunt of having law enforcement clear out the park near the White House by force so he could pose with a Bible, and combined it with viral videos of riot cops using excessive force to develop a new narrative that Trump was going to use the riots to impose fascism on the nation.
“Open your eyes, America. Open your eyes,” said CNN news anchor Don Lemon. “We are teetering on a dictatorship. This is chaos. Is the president declaring war on Americans?” Intellectual apologists for the riots took their chance to say the president’s speech was “a declaration of war against the populace of the U.S.”
In short, many in the mainstream and prestige media are preparing for a long, hot summer of cheering on the rioters as a counterweight to the supposedly fascist Trump. If they get their wish — if the riots drag on in the weeks and months ahead — the cognitive dissonance they’ll have to navigate is going to be pretty great: The rioters have already murdered two police officers, rammed others with vehicles at high speed, looted luxury districts, and terrorized defenseless elderly people and immigrant shopkeepers.
Trump’s decision to make it about him will relieve Democratic mayors and governors of pressure, and even introduce perverse incentives. Trump doesn’t have total authority over the streets, and it’s dangerous for him to invite young rioters to prove it so.
But that is not the only danger ahead.
Nearly four-fifths of Americans polled said they believed the cop who put his knee on George Floyd’s neck, killing him, should be arrested. A remarkable result given the way Americans find it so easy to divide themselves into tribal camps on almost every other issue. The great majority of the nation agrees that the Floyd family needs justice. That consensus is so great that Donald Trump gave voice to it before the fires had even started.
What seems much less clear is where we go from here, and that’s where the danger comes in. If the media tries to make the choice this summer one between cops and rioters, the great majority of Americans will choose the cops, for all their faults, because good policemen risk their lives to save others while rioters contribute nothing to society but grief and immiseration. Ending the looting and burning of American cities and stopping the wanton violence committed against the weak, the elderly, and the defenseless will become the only political issue, and all efforts at police reform will sputter, even as the prospect of a career in law enforcement becomes less attractive to the most capable.
And that is an outcome likely to leave most Americans unsatisfied.