If it’s a cliché at this point to note how Donald Trump has normalized what should be grotesque, his reaction to Thursday’s night protests against police violence in Minneapolis is a blatant, and more pointed, reminder of exactly who he is. Whatever mask remained was ripped away and replaced by a rhetorical white hood when, after midnight on Friday morning, Trump typed out two tweets in response to the protests in Minneapolis after the murder of George Floyd by the police, in which he called protesters “thugs,” threatened to send the National Guard to the city, and warned, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
You’d be correct in thinking that phrase calls to mind the language of outright racists during the ’60s—it was, appropriately enough, a phrase most notably uttered by Walter Headley, Miami’s chief of police in 1967, who gloated that his crackdown on the city’s civil rights activists had worked because, in the words of a news report from the time, “he let the word filter down, ‘When the looting starts, the shooting starts.’” To Trump, white people protesting stay-at-home orders with assault rifles are “very good people;” black people demanding that the state recognize their full humanity are “thugs” who deserve to be shot, the looting of multinational corporations a far more serious crime in Trump’s mind than the killing of a black man by police officers.
Twitter, which has belatedly realized that allowing the most powerful racist in the world to use their platform to spew hate-filled rhetoric is dangerous, slapped a warning to both of Trump’s tweets, writing that they “violated the Twitter Rules about glorifying violence,” though the company concluded that “it may be in the public’s interest” for them to remain up. (The “may be” is doing a lot of work there.)
Yet what these warnings, which are too little and certainly too late, don’t acknowledge is how Trump’s rhetoric has always incited his most ardent followers to violence, and that what so many of his supporters love about him is his refusal to dog whistle, and rather to state his racist intentions outright.
Donald Trump is a white supremacist. It should be easy to slap him with that label, because there is an overwhelming body of evidence, both from his time as president and from his civilian days, that clearly shows who, exactly, he believes is worthy of full personhood. During his election campaign and as president, he has used his bully pulpit to dehumanize brown immigrants, demean people of color, and defend the logic of white supremacy. It’s a violent drumbeat that has been so constant that it has almost faded into the background, just more white noise that is astonishingly easier than it should be for many to ignore.
It comes as no surprise that during Trump’s time in office, hate crimes have gone up, and the number of organized white supremacist groups have increased dramatically. In 2018, Cesar Sayoc, a “fanatical supporter” of the president whose van was plastered with pro-Trump stickers, sent pipe bombs to a slew of Trump’s political opponents, from Hillary Clinton to Barack Obama to Maxine Waters to the offices of CNN, all of whom had been (and continue to be) regular targets of Trump’s ranting and described as his political enemies. Later that year, the man who killed worshippers at Pittsburg’s Tree of Life synagogue claimed he did so because he believed they were aiding migrants from Central America, or in his words, “invaders,” pulling the words straight out of Trump’s mouth. And last August, the shooter who killed almost two dozen people at a Wal-Mart in El Paso also echoed Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, writing in his manifesto that “this attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.” It’s all but impossible not to draw a bright line from Trump’s constant painting of immigrants and asylum seekers, or in his mind “thugs” and “criminals,” “invading” the United States, to these horrific acts of murder. Trump has given people the green light to say the quiet part out loud, and to turn words into action.
With Trump’s explicit callback to the violence of the ’60s, he’s saying another quiet part out loud, too—that police violence and white supremacy are bound up together, the former the favored enforcer of the latter. In 2014, National Guard troops were sent to Ferguson by Missouri’s mayor after residents erupted in protest in response to the killing of Michael Brown. In 2020, there’s no other way to read Trump’s threat to shoot protesters in Minneapolis than an explicit call to violence. He has, yet again, made the link between his words and what he truly wants crystal clear.