World·Analysis

'Vicious dogs' and 'ominous weapons': The politics behind Trump's latest protest threats

In his response to the protests against the deaths of African Americans at the hands of police officers that have erupted in several U.S. cities, U.S. President Donald Trump is doubling down on a bet rooted in history: that when civil-rights protests turn riotous, Americans will favour the iron fist.

U.S. president opts for law-and-order language in a political bet with a deep past

After a demonstration outside the White House Friday, Trump unleashed warnings on Twitter for protesters to stay away. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)

U.S. President Donald Trump is doubling, tripling and quadrupling down on a bet rooted in history: that when civil-rights protests turn riotous, Americans will favour the iron fist.

His Twitter feed on Saturday again filled with martial language — about using vicious dogs and ominous weapons if protesters storm the White House; the need for strength and old-style generals; and protesters being screaming ranters whom he tacitly encouraged his own supporters to confront.

Commentators have drawn parallels to the 1968 law-and-order message of Richard Nixon, whom Trump's own former campaign manager called an inspiration.

History carries more recent examples.

They loom again as protests for racial change are sweeping across U.S. cities in an election year and clashing with demands for law and order.

A researcher who studies moments like these in American life was startled by something he noticed about another police-related death and its destructive aftermath: the shooting death of Michael Brown, 18, in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014 by a police officer.

His findings involved the reaction of a certain type of American: the self-declared independent white voter. And a certain politician: Trump.

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      "I was pretty struck when we did the data analysis," said Kevin Wozniak, who studies the politics and public opinion of criminal justice at the University of Massachusetts.

      He and colleagues examined voters' reaction during the 2016 election to being shown different images, including one of police officers in riot gear atop an armoured vehicle.

      They found that whites who called themselves independent voters became 10 percentage points likelier to declare support for Trump after seeing that image.

      A protester pours vodka into the mouth of another in front of a liquor store in flames in Minneapolis on May 28. (Kerem Yucel/AFP/Getty Images)

      The findings are pertinent politically following fury over the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died after a policeman kneeled on his neck, prompted nights of protest, arson, looting and vandalism in several American cities.

      Authorities in Minneapolis accused white agitators from outside the state of committing much of the vandalism, a claim Trump has echoed on his Twitter feed.

      WATCH | Minneapolis mayor calls in National Guard:

      Protesters in Minneapolis took to the streets for a fourth night on Friday, and the city has deployed the National Guard. Saturday morning, some residents have returned to clean debris left after the protests. 5:13

      Trump's track record

      Earlier this week, one of Trump's tweets was slapped with a warning label from Twitter for glorifying violence. Trump later insisted that he was not, in fact, endorsing extrajudicial execution when he tweeted: "When the looting starts, the shooting starts." 

      Officers keep demonstrators away from the White House during a protest in Lafayette Park in Washington on May 30. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)

      He said he was simply calling for peaceful protests, and warning about the danger of violence: he noted that seven people were shot in Louisville, Ky., during protests over another police-involved death — that of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old emergency medical technician.

      But there's history leading up to that Trump tweet and his latest comments Saturday.

      He's the same president who referred to mostly black NFL players, peacefully protesting police violence during the national anthem, as sons of bitches.

      He's gotten cheers from a crowd of police officers for telling them that when arresting violent suspects, "Please don't be too nice."

      A Detroit protester holds a photo of George Floyd, who was killed in police custody in Minnesota, in a case that has launched nationwide protests and prompted criminal charges. (Sylvia Jarrus/Reuters)

      The history behind the quote

      Books such as The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander, and Dog Whistle Politics, by Ian Haney Lopez, chart how politicians, from way back when the U.S. was still a colony, have used punishment of blacks to their own political ends.

      One famous law-and-order devotee was the originator of the slogan Trump tweeted about looting and shooting.

      The Miami police officer who coined the phrase, Walter Headley, was a nemesis of civil-rights leaders described in a New York Times article as a hardline police chief of the old school.

      His obituary talked about his willingness to use shotguns, dogs and stop-and-frisk tactics to fight crime in black neighbourhoods, culminating in several deaths and numerous injuries in 1968.

      The Trump tweet that prompted a warning from Twitter. Users of the platform can still read it, but must first click through an advisory. (Twitter)

      He died that same year after three marriages, two divorces, and one fatal heart attack. Yet his own legacy, like America's race history, includes twists and turns that defy storybook conclusions.

      Crime dropped for a while under Headley in some rough areas.

      He drew a positive profile from the Associated Press, which mentioned that some black residents of Miami were said to welcome his tough approach and expressed relief at their safer neighbourhoods. 

      His Times obituary also said Headley frequently expressed pride at having hired the city's first black police officers.

      The man who coined the phrase Trump tweeted, Miami Police Chief Walter Headley, left, seen here in 1967 listening to Rev. Theodore Gibson. (Jim Bourdier/AP file)

      There's a meandering trajectory to Trump's own recent history with race.

      Trump now speaks frequently about the criminal-justice bill he signed, which softened prison sentences. It's a frequent topic in his appeals in swing states, where he's hoping to win a few more black votes.

      Yet one of the first things his own electoral base relished about him was his law-and-order attitude.

      In a 2016 interview, Trump's original data director Matt Braynard said a desire for tough justice was the No. 1 defining characteristic among Trump's earliest primary supporters.

      Braynard rejected two common depictions of them — as authoritarian or racist. In the same interview, the ex-Trump campaign official also disparaged "Black Lives Matter terrorists" in referring to the 2016 killing of Dallas police officers.

      WATCH | Protests spread beyond Minneapolis:

      Demonstrations continued for another night in U.S. cities following killing of a black man by police in Minneapolis. 0:57

      The Obama effect

      There's also evidence from the last presidency of how a police controversy and race can have combustible political effects.

      Among the sharpest declines in support former president Barack Obama ever experienced happened in July 2009  after he commented on the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr., an African-American Harvard University professor who was detained after someone saw him forcing open the door to his own house and called police.

      Pew Research cited that as one of the factors as it recorded a seven-point drop in support for Obama among white voters within one single week.

      Early in his presidency, Obama had largely steered clear of talking about race.

      But Americans talked about race a lot. The author of one book, Post-Racial or Most-Racial?,argues that simply having a black president quietly drove racial resentment that infected numerous conversations. 

      The so-called Beer Summit is pictured in 2009 when then-president Barack Obama invited Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, left, Cambridge, Mass., police Sgt. James Crowley, second from right, and Vice-President Joe Biden to discuss the controversy over the arrest of Gates at his own home by police who mistook him for a burglar. (Jim Young/Reuters )

      The author, political scientist Michael Tesler, found a huge racial divide between whites and blacks in support for Obama's Affordable Care Act — it was 20 percentage points greater than the gap in white-black attitudes during Bill Clinton's failed health care reform effort years earlier. 

      Other research has suggested that American whites adopt more conservative attitudes when they hear about the country's changing racial demographics. 

      So what does Wozniak think will happen in 2020 as a result of this recent fury over police brutality and the eruption of civil unrest?

      "Our findings would suggest that the Minneapolis uprising will benefit Donald Trump — that it will be a mobilizing force for his base," he said.  

      "I would add a great, big caveat to that, though."

      WATCH | Former NAACP leader Cornell Brooks says lawmakers must hold police to account:

      Protests against the killing of George Floyd continued Friday night, even after charges were laid against one of the officers involved. Cornell Brooks, the former leader of the NAACP, says police accountability must be addressed by national and state lawmakers. 7:57

      His caveat: there are so many monumental issues rocking American politics right now that voters might be more focused on the pandemic, the economic collapse and impassioned debates about Trump himself. 

      Meanwhile, Trump's opponent, likely Democratic nominee Joe Biden, is promising voters his own version of stability — different from law and order. 

      His pitch is a less dramatic presidency. 

      In an address to the nation posted on his campaign website, Biden said he'd called Floyd's family and said now was the time to address 400-year-old racial wounds, not add gasoline to a race controversy. 

      "This is no time for incendiary tweets," he said. "The very soul of America is at stake."

      National Guard members in Minneapolis Friday. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

      About the Author

      Alexander Panetta is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News who has covered American politics and Canada-U.S. issues since 2013. He previously worked in Ottawa, Quebec City and internationally, reporting on politics, conflict, disaster and the Montreal Expos.

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