Teargas, shock grenades, lasers, commercial-grade fireworks. Gunshots, broken storefronts, cars accelerating into crowds, fires set, soldiers in camo swinging batons with abandon: sights and sounds—tragically real—appropriated and accentuated in the latest episodes of the Trump show. President Trump needs these symbols of lawlessness and disorder because he wants to present himself as the candidate of “LAW AND ORDER!”—his tweet echoing the title of the popular television show. The president tweets of anarchists, looters, and violent gangs and, as July comes to a close, he writes, “If the Federal Government and its brilliant Law Enforcement (Homeland) didn’t go into Portland one week ago, there would be no Portland—It would be burned and beaten to the ground.” Burned and beaten, as if burned to the ground were not enough.
“Burned and beaten” rolls naturally off the tongue of Donald Trump, who has always relished violence—usually the carnival type of professional wrestling or the mobster sort as in “guys who know how to get the job done” without letting niceties stand in the way. A coward and a germophobe, Trump isn’t known for mixing it up himself, but he is known for stirring up animosities until they erupt into intense disputes with physical consequences. A climate of fierce intensity is easily transformed into a climate of fear, and this president has a gift for leveraging the fears of others to his own benefit. At the beginning of his presidency, he famously announced that he was the only one who could save a frightened country from carnage. As he nears the end of his term, he doubles down. This summer’s ad features an older woman facing a home invasion and being put on hold when dialing 911: “For rape, please press 1.” Another surge of ads creates an image of urban mayhem: “Dangerous MOBS of far-left groups are running through our streets and causing absolute mayhem…. They are DESTROYING our cities and rioting.”
The destroying and rioting spectacle attracts attention away from everything else. The situation around Portland’s federal courthouse was far from ideal a few weeks ago, as parts of the city dealt with protests and property destruction night after night. But the president needed to make it a bigger, more spectacular problem, and by sending in agents from Homeland Security he created the spectacle that would draw the public’s attention away from its focus on the pandemic. Nor was his threat to send federal police in full combat regalia to other cities just idle posturing. It was Trump’s cynical attempt to promote a response in the streets that in the end might actually require law enforcement action. If people are afraid of getting sick, they look for an expert with credible knowledge. This, the president can’t provide. But if they are afraid of violence, they might turn to an authoritarian leader unafraid to use the power of the state to create law and order.
Fear and distraction are two of the reasons for the “Trump and Violence” show. A third is that violence removes the need for articulate expression. This president has more difficulty expressing himself clearly than any American leader in the last hundred years, and his critics sometimes ridicule his verbal buffoonery. Too often, though, they’re missing the point. Usually, Trump isn’t trying to articulate an argument; he is trying to get audiences to react to what he says. And he is good at it. The chants, name-calling, and mockery rile up rallies of the faithful. He uses speech to incite intense responses—of rage, of resentment, sometimes of laughter. He provokes but does not explain; he attacks but does not console. Articulate speech is linked to learning, and this is anathema to the president, a man who privileges instinct over education. Articulate speech has traditionally been at the heart of the political realm because through speaking with and listening to one’s fellow citizens, one can discover public purpose. This kind of speech and listening, discussion and discovery demands both sensitive attention and open-ended inquiry. For Trump, these are all elements of a foreign language.
The president’s mother tongue is violence—the opposite of composed, thoughtful speech. The fear he promulgates is meant to fire up his base with longing for a protector. The spectacle of violence is meant to turn people away from the march of a disease that has affected millions of Americans—a march that still has elicited no coordinated response from the federal government. Finally, Trump’s language of violence is offered as a distraction from his inability to articulate a vision for the country at a time of moral reckoning, economic disruption, and international instability.
Instigating more violence, though, will only make everything (apart from Trump’s reelection prospects) worse. One can only hope protesters don’t take the bait. Violence in city streets is a danger to citizens and law enforcement there. The “Trump and Violence” show is a danger to the entire country.