By Ishaan Tharoor / The Washington Post
President Trump may be uniquely bad at bringing a wounded, divided country together.
Throughout six consecutive days of unrest in cities across the country — triggered by the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, in the custody a Minneapolis police officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes — Trump pledged military retribution on protesters engaged in unlawful acts, dismissed their outrage as the work of leftist troublemakers, and said nothing of reports of heavy-handed police actions during the demonstrations. And all this comes at a time when Americans are reeling from an epochal economic collapse and the toll of the coronavirus pandemic.
“President Trump has spewed division with ill-chosen tweets about looting and ‘shooting’ or ‘vicious dogs’ and overpowering weapons,” wrote my colleague Dan Balz. “He has attacked Democratic leaders as their communities burn. He flails rather than leads, his instincts all wrong for what confronts the country.”
“Trump makes little disguise of conjuring a pre-civil rights America where white males held uncontested sway,” wrote Edward Luce of the Financial Times. “He will blame [former president Barack] Obama, China, radical leftists and ‘thugs’ for America’s unhappy condition; anybody, in other words, but himself.”
Under Trump, the United States has already scaled back its defense of human rights and the rule of law in other parts of the world. Now the events of the past week have unfurled like the kind of catalogue of abuses you’d see documented by U.S.-based rights groups in countries elsewhere: Journalists and protesters blinded and maimed by local police? Check. A demagogic leader stirring rage against the free press? Check. Security forces targeting unarmed demonstrators with seeming impunity and even ramming their vehicles into crowds? Check and, yes, check.
The rest of the world is paying attention. Black Lives Matter protests sprung up in cities including London, Berlin and Toronto. Thousands marched through Trafalgar Square. In soccer matches held in empty stadiums in Germany, some star athletes demonstrated in solidarity with George Floyd and other black victims of police brutality in the United States. In Lebanon, where mass anti-government protests have rocked Beirut and other cities, the top trending hashtag on social media shifted to acknowledge the American uprisings thousands of miles away.
America’s putative foreign adversaries also are watching. “This incident is far from the first in a series of lawless conduct and unjustified violence from U.S. law enforcement,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement, adding to the Kremlin’s long history of pointing to human rights abuses in the United States. “American police commit such high-profile crimes all too often.”
Officials in Iran did the same, calling out racial injustice in America. “If you’re dark-skinned walking in the US, you can’t be sure you’ll be alive in the next few minutes,” read a tweet from an account associated with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, which was accompanied by a video that detailed the horrific history of slavery in the United States.
And then there was China. Already locked in a spiraling geopolitical confrontation with Washington, D.C., officials in Beijing seized on the protests to push back against the Trump administration’s assertive messaging on Hong Kong, a city whose unique autonomy is being dramatically curtailed by China.
Hua Chunying, chief spokesperson of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, responded on Twitter to a message of support for Hong Kong from her State Department counterpart Morgan Ortagus with the phrase “I can’t breathe,” the dying words of multiple unarmed black men put in chokeholds by U.S. police officers that has become a global protest slogan.
“There are different reasons for the riots, but their similarities are overwhelming: they all defy the law, subvert order, and are destructive,” Hu Xijin, the nationalist editor of the Global Times, a state-affiliated newspaper, said in a tweeted video, in which he applauded Beijing’s “restraint” for not cheering the protests the way Washington celebrated Hong Kong’s demonstrations.
This is all very convenient for China’s leadership. “The timing of the current unrest in the United States could not be better for China’s purposes,” wrote my colleague Anna Fifield. “It is not China’s rise that is scary, the authorities are saying between the lines, but the United States’ decline. It also feeds into the prevailing view in Beijing that all of the Trump administration’s actions are designed to stop China’s rejuvenation and its elevation to what it sees as its rightful place at the top of the global hierarchy.”
In Washington, Trump officials waded into the propaganda battle. “The difference between our country and many of the authoritarian countries out there, when something like this happens, we investigate it,” national security adviser Robert C. O’Brien said Sunday during an appearance on ABC’s “This Week.” “Our people protest. They petition their government for redress. And we stand with the protesters.”
But in the same conversation, O’Brien denounced the radical elements and outside agitators fomenting trouble during the protests; a script that would be familiar to anyone who has listened to pro-Beijing talking points over the past year of demonstrations in Hong Kong. For months, the Western media, as well as U.S. officials, pointed to the heavy-handedness of local security forces in Hong Kong as one of the main factors that drove the protests. As scenes of police officers brutalizing protesters and journalists flood social media in the United States, there’s no chance Trump or his allies would see matters in that same frame.
Trump’s stance here is not that different from the cynical autocrats O’Brien sets the United States against. It isn’t anchored in any principled defense of private property: Trump, after all, celebrated the destructive “yellow vest” protests in France — where anti-establishment demonstrators repeatedly ransacked and vandalized sections of Paris, initially in anger over a proposed carbon tax — because it allowed him to grandstand against French President Emmanuel Macron’s climate activism.
And like Beijing’s dismissal of the concerns of Hong Kong’s protesters, incensed about the threat to their political freedoms, Trump has shown little empathy for the deep-seated grievances of Americans rising up against systemic racism.
“What the country needs and wants from the president, they’re not going to get,” Al Cardenas, a Florida-based Republican strategist and a former chairman of the American Conservative Union, told my colleagues. “This president, I don’t believe, relates to the racism, relates to the pain. At least I haven’t seen it.”
Ishaan Tharoor is a columnist on the foreign desk of The Washington Post, where he authors the Today’s WorldView newsletter and column. He previously was a senior editor and correspondent at Time magazine, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.