01:56 - Source: CNN
Smoke canisters fired at peaceful protesters outside of White House

Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to the Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. Follow her on Twitter @fridaghitis. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author. Read more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

With the sound of flash bang explosions and tear gas being fired in the background, President Donald Trump spoke the words of a tyrant Monday, delivered from a teleprompter in the Rose Garden, vowing to use military force – as he was doing at that very moment to peaceful demonstrators – to put down protests across the country touched off after the death of a Black man, George Floyd, in police custody in Minneapolis.

Frida Ghitis

The President claimed he would use all the civilian and military resources of the federal government, declaring he would deploy “thousands and thousands of heavily armed soldiers, military personnel and law enforcement officers” to bring order, to stop the violent protests

He did this moments after TV cameras captured in real time the scene of security forces wielding batons and shields – including a line on horseback – moving in on peaceful citizens exercising their First Amendment rights nearby in Lafayette Park. Tear gas filled the air as the crowd fled from the clouds of tear gas, turned, regrouped and were pushed back once again by the advancing forces.

Trump declared himself the “law and order” president, vowing to defend the law, “including your Second Amendment rights.” That was a chilling dog whistle to his armed supporters. Anyone who thought the Trump presidency represented a threat to American democracy, anyone who ever thought Trump could unleash a civil war, saw those fears closer to being realized on Monday night than at any time since he took the oath of office in 2017 with a speech warning about “American carnage.”

Once the American citizens had been cleared with flash bangs, tear gas and rubber bullets, the President walked across the park to St. John’s Episcopal Church, which was partially burned in a Sunday evening protest, and held up a bible for a photo op: “We have the greatest country in the world,” Trump said.

America’s dystopia in the Trump era has reached a new and ominous cliff.

Cities have exploded, driven by anger and frustration, in the midst of the worst health crisis in a century and the deepest economic downturn since the Great Depression. The country is heartsick, frightened, divided. And President Donald Trump is failing on every front.

But even at a time like this, with multiple literal and figurative fires burning, he can think of nothing better to do than urge more violence from authorities, calling on governors to step up the use of force on protesting American citizens, as he did earlier in the day.

Realize that for Trump, the show of bravado, the made-for-TV routing of largely young demonstrators in Lafayette Park, is not merely a reflex, it’s a campaign strategy. The President is trying to capitalize on the disaster, hoping to accrue public support by strutting his phony, carefully constructed tough guy persona.

Indeed, in the conference call with governors Monday he sounded more like a Chinese leader talking about Hong Kong – more like an insecure power-hungry tyrant – than the head of the United States, a country once known (remember?) as a beacon of democracy.

According to a recording of the call, obtained by CNN, he advised, “You have to dominate or you’ll look like a bunch of jerks.” Obsessed, as is his custom, with image over reality, Trump claimed that, “the whole world was laughing at Minneapolis over the police station getting burned.” He said the governors, “look like fools.”

Few will disagree that the looting and the vandalism must be stopped. In fact, that is precisely what America’s most respected leaders have said, but not without acknowledging that the protesters not only have a right to be heard peacefully, but that their grievances are legitimate and their anger justified.

Over the weekend, with city neighborhoods smoldering, Americans were on edge, grief stricken, uncertain about what the future holds. Any other president would have used the role to acknowledge the pain, quell the passions and offer words of comfort and reconciliation. Instead, Trump traveled to Florida to watch a rocket launch, ludicrously striding onto a platform to the tune of “Macho Man,” one of his campaign rally theme songs.

Since this third layer of the 2020 Trump-era catastrophe started to unfold, the President has mostly tweeted threats and incitement. First, he appeared to call for police to shoot Americans when he said, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” a famous, threatening jape from a racist police chief in 1968, who boasted about engaging in police brutality.

After taking cover in a White House basement to protect himself from protesters this weekend, Trump claimed the Secret Service was eager to fight them, and warned of “ominous” weapons and “vicious dogs,” that awaited citizen demonstrators, should they try to come closer. It’s hard to imagine a more jarring image during protests against police brutality. At a moment when the need to come together has not been greater, he has relentlessly attacked Democrats, unable to pause partisan invective even in the midst of a grave crisis.

On his call with governors, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker tried to explain, “rhetoric coming from the White House is making it worse, people are experiencing real pain,” he said. He appeared to be trying to appeal to an empathetic part of the President that may not exist, “We’ve got to have national leadership calling for calm and legitimate concern for protesters.”

Trump, who had just had a call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, his admired strongman, shot back, “I don’t like your rhetoric much either.”

The President, who is raring to see more soldiers in the streets, praised Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz for using the National Guard. But Walz later said he disagreed with Trump’s assessment and told Trump, “No one’s laughing here. We’re in pain. We’re crying. We saw a man lose his life.”

That’s what other governors and mayors who are not watching the mayhem only on television or responding via Twitter, are saying across the country, from the front lines.

The challenge is grave and complicated, but some of what Trump should have done is not such a mystery. Every president before him has helped Americans grieve, helped them through difficult times, appealed to national unity. Somehow, that is beyond the abilities of this man who is so thoroughly incapable of fulfilling some of the fundamental duties of his job.

As with the pandemic, the President didn’t start America’s racial tensions – although he has emboldened white supremacists – but his every instinct has propelled him in the wrong direction. He is making everything worse. Instead of trying to salve America’s suppurating wounds, he is making them more painful. It is a deadly shame.

Trump appears to be trying to gain political profit from the crisis, possibly expecting it will propel him to victory in 2020. (Perhaps it will help him. Burning cities tend to favor conservative politicians.) As always, it is all about him, about what can benefit him; the country be damned.

Law enforcement officials are struggling to contain the looting and vandalism that have boiled over from the protests following the televised killing of Floyd. The demonstrations are driven by an incandescent rage at the never-ending stream of killings of African Americas; the most horrifying aspect of continuing racism, and an unmistakable sign of the need for criminal justice and law enforcement reform.

Trump’s aides had debated what kind of a statement Trump might make. Mayors and governors were worried, rightly, as we have seen, about what he might say. On CNN Monday morning, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said he should keep quiet if he’s going to say something like what he said after the Charlottesville march by white supremacists. Back then, he ended up claiming there were some “very fine people,” among them.

Get our free weekly newsletter

  • Sign up for CNN Opinion’s new newsletter.
  • Join us on Twitter and Facebook

    What should Trump do? Bottoms told CNN the President should, “give us the support that we ask for. If we don’t ask for it, we don’t need your input, your advice and your rhetoric.” Bottoms said Trump is throwing matches into the flames.

    “It’s like watching a nightmare,” the Atlanta mayor said. If Trump can only stoke further hatred and division, “It would be better if he said nothing at all.”

    Yes, it would have been.