WASHINGTON — As President Trump called for police to “dominate” protesters and issued vague warnings about violent anarchists in recent days, peaceful activists hung colorful messages of hope on the temporary fence near the White House that was recently erected to protect him.
“If you’re not standing with us, you’re against us,” read one. “Your silence is deafening.”
That’s a message many Americans have taken to heart in the wake of coast-to-coast protests sparked by George Floyd’s murder last month. A raft of new polls show a seismic shift in public opinion on the Black Lives Matter movement and concern over police brutality, as well as majority support for the protesters demanding change.
That shift in public opinion has put Trump deeply out of step with the moment, just five months before he faces reelection.
“He doesn’t want to hear what people are saying and he doesn’t want to know what the facts are,” said Michael Steele, a former Republican National Committee chair and the first Black person to hold that position. “That creates an enormous danger politically for the president. He’s hemorrhaging support right now.”
While Trump railed against “thugs” and threatened military force, polling shows a majority of Americans support the protesters and their cause, as a cascade of politicians, celebrities, and corporations have released public statements committing to a reckoning on racism and police brutality. The latest came Wednesday when the auto racing giant NASCAR officially banned the Confederate flag at its events, citing the need to combat racial injustice, just hours after Trump declared he would not consider renaming military bases named after Confederate generals.
The change has been swift. Nearly 70 percent of Americans now believe Floyd’s killing is indicative of larger problems with policing, compared to 43 percent who said the same after police fatally shot an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Mo., six years ago, according to a Washington Post poll. Support for the Black Lives Matter movement jumped 24 percentage points, to 61 percent, compared to August 2017, according to a Morning Consult poll.
But Trump, who came to power in part by fanning fear of and hostility to people of color, appears to still be laser focused on his mostly white and conservative base, dodging the issues of racism or police brutality while much of the rest of the nation grapples with them. He has continued to portray the protests as violent, even as workers began to dismantle parts of a new fence around the White House following days of wholly peaceful protests.
“Trump is dealing with the most serious racial uprising in America since the 1960s and he’s playing ostrich — putting his head in the sand,” said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University. “When historians rate presidents there’s a category of race relations and Trump gets an ‘F.’ It’s just that simple.”
While Trump calls Floyd’s death a “tragedy,” he’s also shared a video on Twitter of a commentator saying Floyd was not a “good person” and should not be held up as a martyr. The president also restarted his feud with the mostly Black group of football players who kneeled during the national anthem to protest racism and police brutality. “There are other things you can protest, but not our Great American Flag — NO KNEELING!” he tweeted this week.
It’s not just his rhetoric: Trump has also shown a deep disinterest in police reform itself, even as Republicans in Congress, perhaps with an alarmed eye on the polls, rapidly began planning their own legislation to address the issue this week.
When Trump was asked by a Fox News host last week what he planned to do to confront the lack of trust Black people feel for law enforcement, he called it a “sad problem” but redirected the conversation to his anger at the media, his approval numbers with Black people, and making fun of rival Joe Biden for wearing a mask. When Trump’s former aide Sean Spicer asked whether he supported police reforms in another interview, Trump attacked Biden for not fixing the issue when he was in the Senate.
Unlike past presidents faced with a crisis on race, Trump is not in communication with prominent civil rights organizations or leaders. He brought a group of Black supporters to the White House on Wednesday, but that meeting did not include a civil rights leader or protester.
That has sealed Trump off even further from the national conversation on race and set him apart from his Democratic and Republican predecessors, who had a line of communication with civil rights organizations even when they did not agree on the issues.
“Even during Hurricane Katrina, with all of the criticism President Bush received, we had an ongoing dialogue with him and his office,” said Derrick Johnson, the president of the NAACP. “We had an ongoing dialogue with George Bush Sr. This isn’t about partisanship, this speaks to the integrity and the character of the person serving in office.”
As the political winds shift, and as Trump’s approval dropped below 40 percent in a recent Gallup survey, his aides attempted to signal on Wednesday that he is engaged on police reform. White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Trump has been “quietly and diligently” working on proposals to combat excessive use of police force, which would be unveiled in the coming days. On Thursday, the president is traveling to Dallas to speak with faith and law enforcement leaders about policing, followed by a fund-raiser.
In the meantime, his campaign is still portraying the protests as lawless and scary in messages to his core supporters. “President Trump is working around the clock to restore LAW AND ORDER,” his campaign told Trump supporters in a fund-raising e-mail sent on Tuesday. “Violent thugs are running rampant — these people are ANARCHISTS.”
He also tweeted a baseless conspiracy theory about an older man who was shoved to the ground by Buffalo police, which drew rebukes across the political spectrum.
Even if Trump bows to the new political reality and gives a teleprompter speech responding to calls for police reform, or signs off on legislation, it is unlikely to be a convincing gesture in the eyes of many voters after the past two weeks.
“You can’t approach this by accusing a 75-year-old man who got shoved to the ground of being a terrorist and pivot to bringing people together and healing,” said Ryan Williams, a former top aide to Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential run. “People just won’t buy it at this point.”
Trump’s bellicose posture against the protesters, who are more popular than he is, has put some Republicans in a tough spot. During the past week, GOP senators have scampered away from reporters in the Capitol, attempting to duck questions about the tear gassing of protesters ahead of Trump’s photo op with a Bible or his tweet disparaging the Buffalo man.
“They’re already beginning to feel this, walking with their heads down,” Steele said. “I call it doing the walk of shame.”
The fast-moving polls on race paired with Trump’s own sagging approval numbers suggest to some political analysts that voters are ready for a change — and that the president could get left behind in November.
“I think he should be worried because when the winds of change blow they don’t discriminate on who they blow down,” said Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic strategist in South Carolina.