Chaos outside the White House on Sunday.Credit...Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
Paul Krugman, NYT
Last fall Bob Kroll, the head of the Minneapolis police union, appeared at a Trump rally, where he thanked the president for ending Barack Obama’s “oppression of police” and letting cops “put the handcuffs on criminals instead of us.”
The events of the past week, in which the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody led to demonstrations against police brutality, and these demonstrations were met by more police brutality — including unprecedented violence against the news media — have made it clear what Kroll meant by taking the handcuffs off. And Donald Trump, far from trying to calm the nation, is pouring gasoline on the fire; he seems very close to trying to incite a civil war.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that America as we know it is on the brink.
How did we get here? The core story of U.S. politics over the past four decades is that wealthy elites weaponized white racism to gain political power, which they used to pursue policies that enriched the already wealthy at workers’ expense.
Until Trump’s rise it was possible — barely — for people to deny this reality with a straight face. At this point, however, it requires willful blindness not to see what’s going on.
I still see occasional news reports that describe Trump as a “populist.” But Trump’s economic policies have been the opposite of populist: They have been relentlessly plutocratic, centered largely on a successful effort to ram through huge tax cuts for corporations and the rich, and a so far unsuccessful attempt to take health insurance away from poor and working-class families.
Nor have Trump’s trade wars brought back the good jobs of yore. Even before the coronavirus plunged us into depression, Trump had failed to deliver major employment growth in coal mining or manufacturing. And farmers, who supported Trump by large margins in 2016, have suffered huge losses thanks to his trade wars.
So what has Trump really offered to the white working class that makes up most of his base? Basically, he has provided affirmation and cover for racial hostility.
And nowhere is this clearer than in his relationship with the police.
If economic self-interest were the only thing driving political orientation, you would expect police officers to favor Democrats. They are, after all, unionized public-sector employees — and Republicans are both anti-union and anti-government.
They don’t make enough money to benefit much from the Trump tax cut. Their jobs will be very much at risk if revenue-starved state and local governments are forced to make drastic spending cuts — and Trump’s allies in the Senate are blocking the aid that might avert such cuts.
Indeed, political contributions by public-sector unions overwhelmingly favor Democrats. And while many firefighters voted for Trump in 2016, the largest firefighters’ union has endorsed Joe Biden.
But many police officers and their unions remain staunch Trump supporters, and they have been pretty clear about why: They feel that Trump will back them even, or perhaps especially, if they engage in abusive behavior toward racial minorities.
Just to be clear, many and probably most police officers have behaved well over the past week. In fact, in some cities the police have shown solidarity with protesters, joining marches or taking a knee.
But Trump clearly sides with those who reject any notion that police officers — or any other authority figures — should be held accountable for abusive behavior. Remember, he’s used his authority to pardon members of the U.S. military who were accused or convicted by their own services of committing war crimes.
In a call with governors on Monday, he showed no sign of recognizing either that there might be some justification for widespread protests or that he should play some role in unifying the nation. Instead, he told the governors that all the violence was coming from the “radical left,” and he insisted that governors must get tougher: “You have to dominate or you’ll look like a bunch of jerks; you have to arrest and try people.”
Trump — who retreated to an underground bunker when protesters began demonstrating in front of the White House — also told the governors that “most of you are weak.”
It was a terrifying performance.
Republicans have, as I said, spent decades exploiting racial hostility to win elections despite a policy agenda that hurts workers. But Trump is now pushing that cynical strategy toward a kind of apotheosis.
On one side, he’s effectively inciting violence by his supporters. On the other, he’s very close to calling for a military response to social protest. And at this point, nobody expects any significant pushback from other Republicans.
Now, I don’t think Trump will actually succeed in provoking a race war in the near future, even though he’s clearly itching for an excuse to use force. But the months ahead are still likely to be very, very ugly.
After all, if Trump is encouraging violence and talking about military solutions to overwhelmingly peaceful protests, what will he and his supporters do if he looks likely to lose November’s election?
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