President Donald Trump’s strange political success has been powered from the start by a wildly effective campaign of image-building. In his public persona, Trump has consistently projected himself as a budding strongman, reveling in authoritarian threats calculated to thrill his supporters and terrify his opponents.
The outbreak of an unprecedented national protest movement triggered by the police killing of George Floyd seemed like it could be the moment that Trump finally delivered on these terrible promises. Those who fear Trump braced for their worst nightmares to become reality. Those who support him and took seriously his authoritarian promises likely felt the long-awaited moment of rapture finally drawing near.
Instead of Trump’s full tyrant mode coming to pass, though, something more nuanced happened: Neither side is having their expectations met. This in-between outcome may be toxic for Trump, especially as the 2020 election approaches. As any authoritarian knows, a real strongman needs to govern either through love or fear. Trump has done neither. His prevaricating yet cruel response succeeded in making him look tyrannical and weak at the same time — a potentially fatal mix for any leader.
For those expecting a crushing response to a national uprising, Trump’s extreme statements gave plenty of reason for either hope or fear. The problem for Trump is that, even as his threats get more severe, he seems unable to match them with effective action. He certainly has not made any concessions to the protests — demonstrators have been jailed, beaten, and even killed — but he is also not capable of utterly crushing them like an actual authoritarian would. There has been no order for a general massacre of demonstrators. The institutions of democracy have not been unilaterally dissolved by presidential decree in the name of security.
Rather than strong and menacing, Trump seems to be checkmated. Even the military establishment he has done so much to flatter seems to be turning on him.
In his notorious photo-op in front of a church, where he awkwardly brandished a Bible to signal his evangelical supporters to come to his rescue, Trump didn’t look decisive; he looked desperate. And it didn’t work: The move was even rebuked by Republican senators.
At the cost of real suffering, then, the protesters may have already won a major achievement. If Trump’s proto-fascist political persona was an idol, they’ve smashed it to pieces with a sledgehammer. Put to the real test, Trump’s reaction has been the worst of both worlds for his political career. He responded to the uprising with enough brutality to outrage his opponents, but not enough to truly suppress them and satisfy his base.
The situation is still fluid, and things could take an uglier turn. But the way events are going, the protests that went all the way to the gates of the White House look like they’ve finally pulled back the curtain on Trump’s fascist cosplay. What the unrelenting demonstrations revealed is less a dictator-in-waiting than a con artist – a man who was never actually capable of living up to his most chilling threats. Though he has certainly inflicted massive damage in office — think, for instance, of the families that continue to be ripped apart by his brutal immigration policies or killed in his foreign wars — when put to the test, Trump has been shown as a strongman without any real strength. Even the Wizard of Oz didn’t have such a devastating reveal.
On Tuesday, Trump began publicly hemorrhaging the support of a U.S. military establishment to which he had gone to cringeworthy lengths to attach himself. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, former Defense Secretary James Mattis, and National Guard Chief Gen. Joseph Lengyel all issued public statements undermining the sitting president. In a press conference, Esper publicly broke with Trump over the use of armed troops to quell protests, while Lengyel issued a statement on social media last night subtly chastising the government for its response to the protests.
The most dramatic blow, however, came from Mattis. A man with a deeply checkered record himself, Mattis took the unprecedented move of openly condemning a president that he had served just two years earlier. “Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people—does not even pretend to try,” Mattis wrote in a statement given yesterday evening to The Atlantic. The retired general didn’t say explicitly what should be done but suggestively concluded, “We must reject and hold accountable those in office who would make a mockery of our Constitution.”
Whether due to institutional constraints, personal weakness, or a combination of both, it is looking like Trump was never actually capable of living up to his rhetoric.
Whether due to institutional constraints, personal weakness, or a combination of both, it is looking like Trump was never actually capable of living up to his rhetoric. The disillusionment for those who support him is potentially great, since Trump really does talk like an authoritarian, routinely making hair-raising threats of violence or draconian policy measures, and even encouraging his supporters to take things into their own hands.
Despite being exposed as a phony, many of his voters will likely stick with Trump as a lesser evil compared with his liberal and leftist opponents. But, barring a dramatic reversal of events, his aura of strength has been shattered. Time and again, Trump set the bar for fascist expectations to the highest levels. Mercifully, he seems utterly incapable of actually meeting them.
To be clear, everyone in the United States should be deeply relieved if Trump leaves office in November having turned out to be a lame-duck strongman. But we should not become complacent until that happens. Should something shift in his thinking, or if more extreme members of the administration get into positions of power, he might still end up delivering the real authoritarianism that many of his supporters are clearly craving. There are real risks in the coming months, amid the continued pain of the coronavirus pandemic, unprecedented levels of unemployment, and an uncertain election. No one should rest easy, even if we get through the immediate crisis.
For now, one thing people might celebrate out of these protests, in addition to ensuring serious charges are leveled at the officers involved in killing George Floyd, is destroying the powerful myth Trump built for himself years ago – the one that carried him all the way to the presidential office. Like so many people around the world who like to talk tough on social media, Trump built an image for himself intended to intimidate others. When the people he was threatening finally showed up to his door however, he did exactly what it was always in him to do: He hid.