The president is exposing problems in America that most did not want to see.
by David Frum
You’d think Donald Trump would have more sympathy for looters, being a looter himself. The president has helped himself to money from the U.S. Treasury, using political power to direct public money to his personal businesses. It’s not as visual as a riot, but until 2017 it would have been regarded as equally criminal.
But no, he seems to think they deserve the death penalty: “These THUGS are dishonoring the memory of George Floyd, and I won’t let that happen,” he said on Twitter about the protesters in Minneapolis. “Just spoke to Governor Tim Walz and told him that the Military is with him all the way. Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
The Trump years have confronted all Americans with stark contrasts in the treatment of crime depending on the status of the criminal. The day before the police killing of Floyd, the president and his supporters were voicing passionate concerns for the alleged maltreatment of Michael Flynn by the justice system. Then a helpless man is choked to death on a public street in full public view and—well, he was no choirboy, the president’s supporters explain.
Every public official in Minneapolis and Minnesota has condemned the violence in connection with the protests after the Floyd killing. That violence looks to have been started by outside activists, acting on their own agenda. The CBS affiliate in Minneapolis has reported that locals did not recognize the troublemakers. One person caught on camera smashing windows was a lone white man wearing a professional-looking anti-tear-gas mask.
However the violence started, it’s the job of police to suppress it with minimum hurt to human beings, even at the cost of some damage to property. When pro-Trump protesters descended on state capitals to demand reopening, nobody shot at them, not even when they endangered police lives by screaming into their faces, unmasked, during a pandemic. Nobody shot at them when they carried weapons into state legislative buildings to intimidate state legislators and governors. And of course, those protesters received the full-throated endorsement of President Trump. “Liberate Minnesota!” Trump tweeted on April 17.
Threats of armed violence by pro-Trump demonstrators forced the shutdown of the Michigan legislature in mid-May. But about that militancy, Trump was indulgent. He tweeted May 1: “The Governor of Michigan should give a little, and put out the fire. These are very good people, but they are angry. They want their lives back again, safely! See them, talk to them, make a deal.”
An armed intruder is not a peaceful protester. If the targets yield before the intruder discharges his weapon at them, they have still been coerced. The threat of violence works only to the extent that the imminence of violence is credible. And it was imminent violence that pro-Trump protesters displayed in Minnesota, in Michigan, in the state of Washington. But no federalizing of the National Guard there, no threats of indiscriminate shooting, only gentle understanding of people who gridlocked state capitals in service of their abject lunatic theory that Bill Gates wanted to inject microchips into their bums.
The Trump presidency has shown America aspects of itself that few of us wished to see. Even having been forced to watch them up close through three shameful years of presidential corruption, those aspects are still hard for many of us to accept. But along with the monuments of law, along with the rhetoric of liberty, along with the proud achievements of American history, there also exists the realities that Trump daily exposes: impunity for some forms of looting, impunity for some forms of violence, impunity for some forms of lawbreaking.
Twitter staged a corporate protest against the president’s violent rhetoric by posting a warning label over his “loot/shoot” tweet. That was a brave act from a company the president has threatened. Twitter has been presented with an unsolvable problem by the Trump presidency. The president’s words are news, by definition: How does an information platform regulate that news? Twitter has taken much criticism for failing to resolve the moral challenge of the Trump presidency. What company has done better? What company could do better? Facebook has done worse, disclaiming any duty to check even the most blatant falsehoods by the president and his campaign.
Over the past two days, Twitter has submitted itself to presidential attack. The president has proved his willingness and ability to retaliate against dissident corporations. Amazon lost a multibillion-dollar Pentagon contract, very likely because the administration sought to punish Amazon’s founder, Jeff Bezos, for his ownership of The Washington Post. The president has attacked on his platform GM, the U.S. Postal Service, and other companies at times of vulnerability. Recently, he took a swing at The Atlantic too. In the midst of an economic crisis that has crushed advertising revenues, Twitter is vulnerable.
Yet the company stood up with that warning label. In response, the White House account reposted the offending tweet, thereby inadvertently offering Twitter a solution to its dilemma: Close the @realDonaldTrump account and invite the president to post on the @POTUS and @WhiteHouse accounts instead. Trump’s the president. Let him act like it, and speak like it. And if it shames the White House staff to be so formally implicated in the president’s cruel words and blatant lies—well, time to wake up and be aware of whom you work for and what your work is.
Donald Trump has pillaged much from this country. At times, it seems he has even stolen our collective moral conscience. But the executives at Twitter just showed that the conscience, while often too quiet, can still speak. Let the reactivation of that conscience be the only enduring legacy of this squalid and brutal presidency.
David Frum is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of Trumpocalypse: Restoring American Democracy (2020). In 2001 and 2002, he was a speechwriter for President George W. Bush.