“The biggest victims of the rioting are peace-loving citizens in our poorest communities, and as their president, I will fight to keep them safe,” Trump said. “I will fight to protect you. I am your president of law and order, and an ally of all peaceful protesters.”
The pool reporter assigned to the White House noted that, shortly before Trump began speaking, “a series of loud booms” could be heard from outside the complex. They were probably related to what was underway in Lafayette Square, just north of the White House. There, military police and members of the National Guard were dispersing protesters by using tear gas and flash-bang explosives — clearing the park so that Trump could cross it to have his picture taken at a church that suffered damage Sunday night.
As Trump was declaring himself an “ally of all peaceful protesters,” in other words, law enforcement officers acting at the direction of the White House were uprooting peaceful protesters before a curfew was in effect solely so that Trump could make his way to a photo op unmolested.
That obvious incongruity aside, Trump’s claim to be an ally of peaceful protesters is perhaps the most ridiculous of the hundreds of ridiculous assertions he’s made since he announced his candidacy for the presidency in 2015. It’s hard to think of a statement both so self-serving and so divergent from demonstrable reality.
The protesters Trump has encountered most often during that period have been those who regularly appear at his rallies. More often than not, at some point during Trump’s remarks, someone will stand with a banner or a chanted slogan, only to be quickly drowned out by the crowd and escorted away by the police. Trump’s inevitable response isn’t to ignore them, or to show any sort of measured appreciation of the First Amendment. It’s disparagement and threats.
He’s said he wants to punch protesters in the face. He’s said that he’d pay the legal bills of anyone in the audience who attacked a protester. He once said that perhaps an attack on a black protester at a rally in Alabama was justified. He’s dismissed protesters as losers and children, people who live with their parents. At a rally in New Hampshire last year, he mocked a protester’s weight — though the man he was mocking was actually a Trump supporter who had been confronting the protester. Trump recognizes that his supporters enjoy joining him in hating his opponents, so he elevates their hatred.
During the campaign, protesters were embraced only if they agreed with his politics. Protests centered on Colorado’s Republican delegate-allocation rules — protests Trump hoped would help him secure the party’s nomination — were praised. But protesters outside a Trump speech in California in April 2016 were “thugs and criminals.” Many, Trump said, were “professionals,” people paid to protest, since there obviously could be no legitimate opposition from legitimate Americans to Trump’s candidacy.
After Trump won the election, several days of protests emerged in various cities, including on the streets of New York outside Trump Tower. Frustrated, Trump again disparaged those in attendance as “professional.” (The irony, of course, was that his campaign had paid people to attend his campaign launch event in the same building.) After a broad outcry that the president-elect would describe opponents in that way, Trump backtracked, tweeting that he loved the protesters’ “passion for our great country.”
That generous spirit didn’t last long. After his inauguration on Jan. 20, 2017, hundreds of thousands of protesters marched in Washington and other cities to oppose his presidency. Again, Trump disparaged their efforts.
“Watched protests yesterday but was under the impression that we just had an election!” he tweeted. “Why didn’t these people vote?”
A few hours later, another revision of his criticism: “Even if I don’t always agree, I recognize the rights of people to express their views.”
Trump moved quickly to enact policies in line with his campaign pledges, including a ban on travel from largely Muslim countries. Protests again erupted — and Trump again disparaged the protesters.
Professional anarchists, thugs and paid protesters are proving the point of the millions of people who voted to MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 3, 2017
Over and over, the pattern held. Protesters who supported Trump’s position were heroes, exemplars of democratic or American ideals. Those who disagreed were criminals or opportunists.
Trump’s claim to be an ally of peaceful protesters fails not only when considered in relation to his policies. He has also taken a public stance against protests when he sees it as politically useful. He defended right-wing demonstrators in Charlottesville in 2017 as “fine people,” despite the overlap of those protesters with racist and white nationalist groups. He disparaged the NFL protests spawned by Colin Kaepernick, focused on police violence, making the issue a focal point as he was facing criticism for his interactions with the family of a serviceman killed in Niger.
At one point, Vice President Pence attended an NFL game in Indianapolis, only to ostentatiously leave after several players knelt during the national anthem — an exit that Trump insisted he’d ordered. That protest, of course, was centered on precisely the same issue that is spurring the current unrest and that prompted Trump’s claim of allyship.
Not that we needed Pence’s choreographed appearance at the game to know how Trump felt about protests against the experiences of black people at the hands of police. When the issue moved to the forefront of the political conversation in 2014, Trump repeatedly disparaged the protests in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore that followed the deaths of black men that year. Often, he did so to attack President Barack Obama, but at no point did he express sympathy for the peaceful protesters whom he now claims as allies.
Our great African American President hasn’t exactly had a positive impact on the thugs who are so happily and openly destroying Baltimore!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 28, 2015
There are many ways Trump is disinterested in the First Amendment; his frustration with protests he doesn’t like is only one of them. That’s why the First Amendment exists, of course — to protect the right to protest even when opposed by the country’s most powerful elected official. But it’s important to note just how far Trump is from the position he claims to hold.
Trump opposes peaceful protests that don’t serve his political goals. In fact, he casts peaceful protests that aren’t in line with his politics as illegitimate and dangerous. Trump is an ally of Trump, first and foremost — something the protesters recognize, even if he doesn’t.