It’s amazing how a constellation of governors who were all too eager to arrest people for failure to social distance during the early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic are suddenly averse to the idea of arresting rioters and looters in cities across the United States.
This is vexing the president — and, quite frankly, a lot of other people wondering when the governors who were celebrated for their leadership in aggressively flattening the COVID-19 curve are now reluctant to show any sort of leadership when it comes to a small but dedicated group of bad actors determined to sow chaos.
Whatever the case, President Donald Trump has a message for the nation’s governors on how to deal with the crisis.
“We’re going to do something that people haven’t seen before,” he said during a Monday video conference call.
You’ve likely heard some of the details already, and they haven’t exactly been given in the most evenhanded of terms.
The New York Daily News, for instance, called the president’s words “strongman remarks.” CNN said Trump “appeared angry and made no attempt at striking a unifying or introspective tone” during the call.
You’ve likely heard some of the quotes, as well.
“You have to dominate or you’ll look like a bunch of jerks. You have to arrest and try people,” the president said.
“If you don’t dominate, you’re wasting your time. They’re going to run over you,” he added. “If you don’t put it down it will get worse and worse. The only time it’s successful is when you’re weak and most of you are weak. You have to arrest people.”
During the call, Trump advocated for stringent punishments.
“You’ve got to arrest people, you have to track people, you have to put them in jail for 10 years and you’ll never see this stuff again,” he said.
There was a sparring session with Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who said that “rhetoric coming out of the White House is making it worse, people are experiencing real pain.”
“We’ve got to have national leadership calling for calm and legitimate concern for protestors,” the Democrat said.
Trump struck back, criticizing Pritzker’s leadership on COVID-19 issues.
And of course, that was that line, left unelaborated upon: “We’re going to do something that people haven’t seen before,” the president said.
The general take from this exchange is that the White House came out looking the worse for wear — which should hardly be a surprise, considering I doubt they’re the ones who leaked the audio or chose whom to leak it to.
However, the question raises itself: Exactly what have the governors been doing that evinces a recipe for success?
At this juncture, it’s worth remembering that the coverage of the protests and riots that sprang forth out of the reprehensible arrest and death of George Floyd didn’t occur in the middle of a fallow news cycle. What the 24/7 coverage of the unrest supplanted was 24/7 coverage of a pandemic that had precipitated draconian lockdowns and the nightmarish sequel to the Great Depression.
During this period, these same governors were willing to condemn — in the strongest voices — anyone who protested for his right to earn a living or feed his family. Salon owners were sent to jail for reopening too quickly. People who gave haircuts on the lawn of the Michigan Capitol were given the appropriate Two Minutes Hate. A young woman who took a drive in her car without getting out was ticketed. We were all told, in no uncertain terms, that leaving our homes without reason was the height of irresponsibility.
What we’ve now admitted is that this was all rubbish. Governors who were once social distancing tough guys — including Pritzker — are now telling us how “people are experiencing real pain” and how we need to have “legitimate concern for protesters.”
The different element in the mix this time is the African-American community’s fraught relationship with law enforcement.
I would venture that, were I to sit down with many of the protesters, we would likely find ourselves on different wavelengths when it comes to this issue. And yet, there’s hardly any controversy regarding Floyd’s death in Minneapolis and what should happen to Derek Chauvin, the police officer whose knee remained on Floyd’s neck for almost nine nauseating minutes before Floyd died. You can say that this isn’t just about Floyd — but the moment is the problem.
At a time when so many of us have been told we need to sacrifice our jobs, our livelihoods, our freedoms, our ability to provide for our families to contain a dread virus, we have governors who can’t tell their own constituents to sacrifice their outrage or to keep it online? The same politicians who took such a hard line against small business owners cannot — as their cities burn — find it within themselves to impose the order they so desperately sought just a week ago?
You can speculate why these governors have made the choices they’ve made. I don’t find that speculation useful; I just know they have taken that path and are allowing unfettered destruction by a narrow cohort determined to use the legacy of a man unjustly killed as cover to loot or destroy as they see fit.
The subtext of the video conference call is clear: Trump plans to restore law and order if the nation’s governors are unwilling or unable.
To liberals, “law and order” is considered a buzzword for racist inclinations. It isn’t. It means enforcing the basic rule of just law when a small but determined group of people have created anarchic conditions in which it cannot exist.
Some entity has to step into the void. The clear implication here is that entity is going to be the federal government.
This isn’t to offer an unqualified endorsement of how the president has handled this aspect of the crisis. More news conferences and fewer tweets would be welcome. It also doesn’t particularly help when Trump tweets out a quote — “When the looting starts, the shooting starts” — that originated with a retrograde Miami police chief in 1967, although the president clearly meant it in a different context.
Nor is it to endorse carte blanche for the federal government. The president’s mandate is narrow and clear: Bring about the rule of law using the minimum amount of coercion necessary and in concert with local officials. A vulgar display of wanton force or a botched confrontation with protesters won’t just make the “law and order candidate” label impossible, it’ll mean the president will have broken and bought one of the darkest moments of our nation’s recent history.
That said, COVID-19 is still as much of a threat as it was the moment George Floyd died. Our unemployment crisis gets worse with each store set aflame.
Our recovery is put on hold because of a contingent of lawless hooligans who’ve used an overwhelmingly peaceful protest as cover for destruction. We can’t tell those peaceful protesters apart from the hooligans, unfortunately — which is why the same tactics governors embraced in the early days of the coronavirus are now both effective and necessary.
If you want to call these “strongman remarks,” fine. America’s governors need to step up. If they cannot maintain the rule of law, the federal government will have to.
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