Donald Trump has the blind devotion of a rabid sports fan. His team can do no wrong. The opposition are liars and cheats.
So maybe no one was surprised on Monday when he appeared to defend an accused murderer.
At the White House press briefing, Trump was asked about Kyle Rittenhouse, a white 17-year-old charged with killing two people and injuring another with an AR-15-style rifle during protests against the police shooting of an African American man in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Rittenhouse sat in the front row of a Trump rally this year and has become a darling of conservative media. Jesse Kelly, a radio host, reportedly said that “with a couple pelts on the wall” Rittenhouse “is gonna have to fight off hot conservative chicks with a bat”, while the columnist Ann Coulter said she wanted him “as my president”.
Such signals from the base ensure that Trump’s loyalty is guaranteed. Asked if he will condemn the actions of vigilantes like Rittenhouse, the president demurred: “We’re looking at all of it. And that was an interesting situation. You saw the same tape as I saw. And he was trying to get away from them, I guess; it looks like. And he fell, and then they very violently attacked him. And it was something that we’re looking at right now and it’s under investigation.”
And in another startling remark, Trump could not bring himself to say political violence is wrong. “I guess he was in very big trouble,” he said. “He probably would have been killed but it’s under investigation.”
It was a moment that evoked memories of Charlottesville in 2017, when Trump drew moral equivalence between white nationalists and civil rights protesters. It will probably cause less of a stir, given the numbing effect of the past four years; recently Trump declined to condemn the QAnon conspiracy theory because its followers are on his side.
Eric Swalwell, a Democratic congressman, observed on Twitter: “Mass shooters finally have a president who speaks for them.”
“Law and order”, it seems, only applies to Trump’s perceived foes, not his supporters nor the half dozen aides to his 2016 campaign who now have criminal convictions. The president, due to visit Kenosha on Tuesday, is yet to speak to the family of Jacob Blake, who was shot and paralysed from the waist down.
Moments earlier at Monday’s briefing, Trump was also asked about his own supporters riding pickup trucks into downtown Portland, Oregon, on Saturday and firing paintball guns and pepper spray. He said: “Paint is a defensive mechanism. Paint is not bullets.”
A member of a far-right group was killed in the Portland clashes, prompting Trump to tweet a message of condolence: “Rest in peace Jay.” CNN’s Kaitlan Collins, often a thorn in Trump’s side, tried several times to follow up but he refused to answer and moved to the next question.
Monday’s briefing also featured a long diatribe against “leftwing rioters” and “antifa” who share “the same agenda” as Democratic nominee Joe Biden, waging a “war on law enforcement” and threatening to “destroy our suburbs”.
In what may have been classic projection, Trump said: “When you surrender to the mob, you don’t get freedom; you get fascism. That’s what happens in all cases. You take a look at Venezuela. Look what’s going on there and other places.
“Biden is using mafia talking points: the mob will leave you alone if you give them what you want … In America we will never surrender to mob rule because if the mob rules, America is dead.”
He lambasted Democratic governors and mayors for unrest happening on his own watch. The divide-and-rule appeal to tribalism is naked and obvious but that doesn’t mean it won’t work. Just as in 2016, when Hillary Clinton was constantly asked to respond to Trump’s latest outrage rather than setting out her own agenda, Biden earlier on Monday was forced to issue a rebuttal to the president’s Nixonian law-and-order hammer.
That meant another day distracting from the coronavirus pandemic – burning cars and mayhem in streets attract TV cameras more readily than an invisible microbe that has been around for months – and from his attempts to sabotage the postal service and election. Like a rabid sports fan, Trump is much more comfortable on home turf.
Originally published: 2020-08-31 19:59:47