On the menu today: how the country is paying the price for a long line of leaders and aspiring leaders who saw public anger as a force they believed they could control and manipulate; why Donald Trump won’t give a unifying speech and has no particular desire to do so; and the protests ended the coronavirus lockdowns, but the risk is still out there.
The Anger of the Public Is a Fire, and You’re Not Supposed to Play with It
Why do we teach kids not to play with matches?
Because if you’re not careful and responsible, once you start a fire, it can be difficult to control. Every fire that ever burned out of control appeared to be under control, right up until the moment it obviously wasn’t. Kids need to be taught to respect fire, to recognize its destructive power as well as its usefulness, and to use it only when they need it.
Everything said above applies to the metaphorical fire of anger in the public, and the power of an angry mob of people. In recent days, social media offered plenty of examples of people who supported the protests, perhaps even when they became violent, even when they warped into looting . . . right up until the moment the violence started to target them or their homes.
Leigh Tauss works at the Indy Week, an alternative paper in Raleigh, N.C., Saturday night, she was forced to hide in the basement as her paper’s offices were ransacked. Afterwards she tweeted, “I’m devastated. We are a progressive newspaper. Last night I was inside when the first brick was thrown.” Take no joy in her terror; no one should go through something like that.
But observe the fact that her newspaper is progressive mattered to her; it did not matter to the angry mob.
On Thursday night, former ESPN reporter Chris Martin Palmer tweeted, “burn that s*** down” in response to an image of a building in flames. (It was low-income housing, but Palmer didn’t know that at the time.)
By Sunday he fumed, “They just attacked our sister community down the street. It’s a gated community and they tried to climb the gates. They had to beat them back. Then destroyed a Starbucks and are now in front of my building. Get these animals TF out of my neighborhood. Go back to where you live.”
Once an angry mob develops its taste for destruction, it quickly loses its interest in drawing distinctions. This is why you’re not supposed to deliberately add to existing levels of public anger, why you’re not supposed to see stoking the rage of your fellow citizens as a useful political tool, and why you’re not supposed to pour metaphorical gasoline on the fire. Angry people are not thinking people.
This is why the news media are supposed to be careful when covering emotionally charged topics and events, and supposed to avoid simplistic narratives that demonize or villainize particular groups of people. This is why news “commentators” and television and radio talk-show hosts aren’t supposed to have their anger turned all the way up to eleven all the time, and why they’re not supposed to keep their audiences marinating in a toxic brew of perpetual outrage and endless grievances. (Last night, Tucker Carlson denounced vice president Mike Pence, former presidential candidate Carly Fiorina, Heritage Foundation president Kay Cole James, and former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley, asserting, “The message from our leaders on the Right, as on the Left, was unambiguous: ‘don’t complain, you deserve what’s happening to you.’” Sure, sure, I’m certain that’s exactly what the vice president said and intended to communicate.)
This is why activists are supposed to keep their communities focused on solutions and what can and should be changed, instead of just stirring people into a frenzy.
But we have a lot of people who climbed to their positions of power and influence on the backs of public anger, and who may not have many other psychological settings.
Trump Is Not a Unifier, and He Has No Interest in Being One
Apparently, some of President Trump’s advisers urged him to use calming, soothing rhetoric, perhaps in an Oval Office address. After being given that advice, the president pledged on Twitter that “the most vicious dogs, and most ominous weapons” await anyone who tries to jump the White House fence. He quoted the slogan “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” either expecting everyone to understand it’s a reference from the 1960s or simply not caring if anyone does.
Donald Trump has few settings other than confrontation and anger. He sees everything as a perpetual conflict, with himself and groups he likes on one side, and others he cannot abide on the other. No matter the problem, he always finds a path back to his favorite explanation: he is strong and others are weak; if other people were as strong as he was, the problem wouldn’t be happening.
The calls for Trump to give some sort of national address with palliative and unifying rhetoric are leftovers from previous, “normal” presidencies. Donald Trump could go before the country this evening and read “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” or anecdotes of Nelson Mandela or quote Gandhi. Imagine that tonight Trump delivered the best-written speech a president has ever delivered. Would any of the young people in the streets alter their attitudes or behavior because of a Trump speech? Unlikely. There’s a good chance they would decide — perhaps preemptively — that Trump’s speech was so disingenuous, it offered them another excuse to continue the mayhem of the past seven nights.
Keep in mind, many of Trump’s supporters like him precisely because he never calls upon them or anyone else to calm down. Trump never tells them that they have any role in the problem, or that they must take an action to ameliorate the suffering of others. Trump rarely, if ever, cites any sense of obligation to the well-being of others or resisting individual impulses to serve the greater good, even in a crisis. Trump wouldn’t even wear a mask at public events or stop handshakes during a pandemic! This president will never ask you to sacrifice something or change your ways. He will never urge you to ask what you can do for your country. He’s extremely happy with himself just the way he is, and unless you criticize him, he’s not going to tell you that you have to change anything about yourself, either.
Even if Trump somehow did look into the teleprompter and deliver the speech as written — recall that in mid-March, he managed to get several details of the travel ban exactly backwards — after three-and-a-half years in office, we know how he operates. Within a few hours, he would see something on television that angered him and start fuming on Twitter. There is no indication that Trump sees a real problem in the way the police operate in the United States. He still thinks the Central Park Five are guilty. During a speech in front of police in Long Island, Trump urged cops to stop covering the heads of arrested suspects as they get put in the back of a police car. President Trump’s personal contribution to the White House Opioid Summit was to lament that the country doesn’t execute drug dealers.
Trump’s response to every problem relating to law enforcement is that the police need to get “tougher.” He does not see any conflict between this mentality and his statements during the Mueller investigation and impeachment that he was the innocent victim of unfair, vindictive, unaccountable law enforcement. The president is a passionate advocate for the rights of the accused — when he or his allies are the ones accused.
The Coronavirus Doesn’t Care About How Angry the Protesters Are
This column from old friend Robert A. George, pointing out that New York governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio have effectively suspended the coronavirus quarantine restrictions for the protests and thus should end them for everyone, ranks among my favorites:
Gov. Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio: End it. End it all. Start bringing this city back to life before it’s too late.
End it. Sorry, but your precious metrics and thresholds are as aflame as the average NYPD cruiser.
Yes, you both expressed worry Monday morning about infection spikes in the coming weeks due to the protesters (though the mayor had to be prompted via a reporter’s question), but you both barely mentioned it in your weekend briefings. By opting not to impose either citywide or statewide curfews over four nights — by waiting to announce a curfew for Monday evening — you essentially conceded the rules do not apply for the marching thousands.
We will know the health consequences of gatherings of hundreds of people within a few weeks. Being outside and in sunlight and the prevalence of masks will help; bunching together and shouting will hurt. We’re probably opening up a little wider and faster than we ought to, but you can’t sustain these widespread restrictions after Americans have seen police arresting a dad playing with his daughter, a mom on a playground, and a paddleboarder off the coast of Malibu. The coronavirus and its need for social distancing was a test of the seriousness and judgment of government at all levels, and while many passed, far too many flunked.
As for the world’s fight against the virus itself, there are some quite encouraging signs. The head of the Milan hospital declaring the coronavirus is effectively gone in Italy is pretty eye-opening. Nationally, the daily number of new cases and new deaths continues to decline, although a little slower than we would like.
But cases are starting to rise significantly in states such as Alabama, South Carolina, and Virginia, and it’s not just a matter of doing more tests. The virus arrived later to these parts of the country, and thus they’re probably at higher risk right now. The Rt number is creeping back up in about a dozen states.
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