On Monday night, after days of protests following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, President Donald Trump addressed the nation with a very simple message: I am tough as hell.
“I am your President of law and order and an ally of all peaceful protesters,” Trump said.
“Today, I have strongly recommended to every governor to deploy the National Guard in sufficient numbers that we dominate the streets,” he said.
“If the city or state refuses to take the actions that are necessary to defend the life and property of their residence, then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them,” he said.
“One law and order, and that is what it is, one law. We have one, beautiful law,” he said.
And then, on ground where police had forcefully cleared peaceful protesters just minutes before, Trump strode across Lafayette Park – accompanied by a slew of police officers and Secret Service – for a staged photo-op in front of the historic St. John’s Church and hold up a Bible. “It’s a Bible,” Trump said, to clear up any confusion.
“D.C. had no problems last night,” Trump tweeted Tuesday morning. “Many arrests. Great job done by all. Overwhelming force. Domination. Likewise, Minneapolis was great (thank you President Trump!).”
The whole thing – the speech punctuated with talk of “law and order” and the need to “dominate,” the walk across ground that had been the site of protests moments before – was orchestrated to push back against a story that had broken over the weekend: That amid the protests on Friday night outside the White House, Trump had been taken to the bunker under the White House for his protection.
The image of Trump cowering in a bunker while people take to the streets to protest the death of a(nother) unarmed black man immediately became fodder for Trump’s two preferred mediums of communication: cable TV and Twitter. “Trump’s Bunker” trended on Twitter. Cable TV repeatedly ran the story of a President being whisked away to safety.
And it drove Trump crazy. As CNN reported Monday night:
“Trump himself was angered by coverage depicting him holed up in an underground bunker. He told aides on Monday he wanted to be seen outside the White House gates, according to a person familiar with the matter, which is part of what drove the decision to stage the photo-op at St. John’s Church.”
Why did it drive Trump crazy? Because his idea of strength and toughness is deeply distorted, twisted and gnarled over many decades of grievance and bravado. See, for Trump, being strong and being tough is tied directly to winning, to dominating, to using overwhelming force to get a desired result.
In his mind, might makes right. And the world is split between people willing to use their power over others and those too afraid to exert it.
* On the campaign trail in 2016, Trump repeatedly defended the use of waterboarding and other methods of torture to get information out of enemy combatants. “Don’t tell me it doesn’t work — torture works,” Trump said in South Carolina in February 2016. “Half these guys [say]: ‘Torture doesn’t work.’ Believe me, it works.” In November 2015, he openly acknowledged that he was fine with torture even if it didn’t work. “It works,” Trump said at a rally in Ohio. “Believe me, it works. And you know what? If it doesn’t work, they deserve it anyway, for what they’re doing. It works.”
* In a speech to law enforcement on Long Island in 2017, Trump urged officers to treat arrested gang members rougher. He said this:
“When you guys put somebody in the car and you’re protecting their head, you know, the way you put their hand over? Like, don’t hit their head, and they just killed somebody – don’t hit their head,” Trump continued. “I said, you can take the hand away, OK?”
* In 2018, following reports that he had referred to some African nations as “s***hole countries,” Trump defended himself – via tweet – this way: “The language used by me at the DACA meeting was tough, but this was not the language used. What was really tough was the outlandish proposal made - a big setback for DACA!”
* “Throw them out into the cold,” Trump famously/infamously said of protesters at a rally in Burlington, Vermont, in January 2016. “Don’t give them their coats. No coats! Confiscate their coats.”
There are lots more examples, but they all tell the same story: Donald Trump thinks strength and toughness is about domination. About winning. About the powerful rolling over those less powerful.
And he views himself as the Platonic ideal of that toughness, a break from past presidents and politicians – Democratic and Republican – who haven’t been willing to exert their power and dominance domestically and around the world.
“Get tough Democrat Mayors and Governors,” Trump urged in response to the protests. “These people are ANARCHISTS. Call in our National Guard NOW. The World is watching and laughing at you and Sleepy Joe. Is this what America wants? NO!!!”
There is nothing Trump cares more about – and, of course, fears more – than being perceived as weak and being mocked and laughed at for it. He is willing to say and do absolutely anything to keep from being put in that situation. So when he was being mocked for retreating to the White House bunker, his response was immediate: I’ll show them. … I’ll walk right across the ground they were protesting on!
Of course, as any emotionally mature person understands, might doesn’t, in fact, make right. Toughness is not always about exerting your dominance because you can. True strength is rooted in the actions you don’t take, the ability to understand that brute force should be your last resort, not your first instinct.
That’s true for any person. But it’s especially true for a President of the United States faced with protests on American streets driven by the death of yet another black man at the hands of the police. Truly tough people, truly strong people – they don’t need to show and tell everyone how strong and tough they are. It’s in their restraint, in their understanding that might doesn’t make right that their true strength shines through.
Donald Trump doesn’t know that.