The United States is submerged in a triple crisis — health, economic and social — and the president, five months away from an election, is incapable of demonstrating empathy.
“We’re still wrestling with America’s original sin.” This phrase is not a slogan from one of the protests that have swept the country, with people clamoring for racial justice, since George Floyd was asphyxiated by a Minneapolis police officer on May 25. The remark was made by Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a cunning guardian of the essence of the GOP, who asked Tim Scott, the only African American Republican senator, to lead an initiative to decide on how to act against police misconduct. Former President George W. Bush called upon the nation to end “systemic racism.”
The Pentagon and some Republican senators are studying the possibility of renaming military bases named after Confederate officers from the Civil War. NASCAR, the popular automobile racing association, has prohibited the exhibition of the Confederate flag in its races. Big companies are positioning themselves and taking steps against racial injustice. Over the last two weeks, local and state governments have effected tangible change. The House of Representatives, with a Democratic majority, has promoted an unprecedented legislative initiative to combat what most Americans see as latent racism among police. Essays on race hold the top place in book sales. Never before in history have surveys shown a larger consensus on the necessity to act against the predominance of racism in society. The country is passing through a moment of change. But the president seems unmoved by it.
Entrenched inside the White House during the height of the protests, tweeting conspiracy theories, President Donald Trump has shown himself to be more isolated than ever before from the dominant social and political current in the country. The United States is submerged in a triple crisis — health, economic and social — and the president, five months away from the election, is incapable of demonstrating empathy.
“Anyone who pays attention to Donald Trump will notice that he is not an individual with a normal capacity for empathy, and presidents usually have a hyperdeveloped sense of empathy,” says Russell Riley, co-chairman of the Presidential Oral History Program at the University of Virginia. “Empathy was always an essential part of the presidential job description. Since the civil rights revolution of the 1970s, the defense of racial equality is also included in the job description. It is part of the American creed. This president has already broken many political norms, and this is yet another. The difficulty is in knowing if this is only one more example of him challenging conventional norms, or if there is something regarding race that makes things more complicated for him. We can’t analyze his psyche; we can only read his actions. In them, it is evident that he did not demonstrate empathy, nor did he accept the conventional norm of defending racial justice.”*
The first time Trump tweeted about Floyd was two days after Floyd’s death. Trump expressed his condolences and spoke of a “sad and tragic” death. On May 30, he made his first public declaration about the case, at the beginning of his speech at the Kennedy Space Center, following the successful launch of a SpaceX rocket. “I understand the pain people are feeling,” stated Trump. But the word racism did not leave his mouth.
The president also did not mention that word two days later in his statement at the White House Rose Garden, the main statement he has made regarding the tragic episode that shocked the world. “All Americans were rightly sickened and revolted by the brutal death of George Floyd. Justice will be fully served.” From there on, he dedicated the rest of his remarks to criticizing the protesters and the local and state authorities that were incapable of containing the protests. “Professional anarchists,” “violent mobs,” “arsonists,” “looters.” These were some of the insults Trump directed at the people who were largely peacefully on the streets around the country. Since Floyd’s death, Trump has tweeted “law and order” more than a dozen times.
“Trump is in a difficult political position,” summarized Tracey Brame, who is the dean of Western Michigan University’s law school and has participated in writing legislation on racial justice in Alabama. “He won the 2016 election by reuniting a strange coalition. Politically, he should be careful to not alienate a part of his electorate who feel offended by the protests. His only strategy toward the African American population is to argue that he has created a favorable economy for all; however, this argument has been disrupted by the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Amidst these protests, it is hard to play on both teams. Anyone who watches the eight-minute video of Floyd’s death will have a hard time positioning themselves on the other side.”*
Trump’s political position is as evident as it is risky. Defending the police from criticism and refusing to begin revising the racist legacy left by the Confederate states may energize his white base for the election. In the past, Trump has successfully exploited racial tensions for his own political gain. We must not forget that five years ago, he initiated his campaign for the White House with the accusation that Mexico was sending rapists across the border. However, many Republicans, even within Trump’s inner circle, fear that continuing this game after Floyd’s death is a grave strategic error and a demonstration of political myopia. They believe this may continue to push away less fanatical voters who have already begun to turn their backs on him, since COVID-19 has neutralized the argument of economic vigor that dazzled all the rest, and mobilize against the Republican minorities whose participation may prove decisive in the November election.
“One of Trump’s main mysteries is that, contrary to most presidents, after being elected, he hasn’t lifted a finger to expand his electoral base,” states Riley. “The polls indicate that there is an erosion greater than ever before among his base. Partially because of Trump’s management of the coronavirus, partially for his refusal to embrace the message of racial justice, and mainly, for the economic deterioration. Many moderate Republicans tolerated all the noise as long as the graphs rose.”*
According to a survey from Monmouth University published last week, 76% of Americans, including 71% of white Americans, consider racism a “big problem” in the United States. This represents an increase of 26 percentage points since 2015. Among the voters who identify themselves as conservatives, 65% believe the frustration displayed by protesters is justified. In another survey from PBS, 67% of Americans believe that Trump’s response has increased tensions, far from reducing them. But the president appears refractory in the face of the evidence. On Thursday, in Dallas, he affirmed that solutions will arrive “quickly and it’ll go very easily.” In February, he said that COVID-19 would disappear “like a miracle,” but the virus continues to take away hundreds of American lives every day.
*Editor’s Note: These quotations, accurately translated, could not be verified.
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