Rhinehold: The Mindset of a President in Crisis

Originally posted at Rhinehold's Blog.

It was May 9th, 1970. Less than a week earlier, four students were shot and killed by National Guard troops on the campus of Kent State. In five more days there would be another shooting on the campus of Jackson State, two students killed by National Guard troops. Protests against the war were in full swing on campuses all over the country. Many of them included acts of violence that were hard to watch.

President Nixon was distraught at the protests and especially the killings that took place, as several close to the president observed. As H.R. Haldeman wrote in his diary, “I am concerned about his condition … he has had very little sleep for a long time and his judgement, temper and mood suffer badly as a result.” Nixon was having a very human reaction to the civil unrest and death that had occurred under his watch, it was haunting him.

So, on that morning of May 9th, he made a strange decision and walked to the Lincoln Monument where protesters were gathered and speaking out against the war to start up a conversation with them. Nixon remembered the conversation, which lasted about an hour, to be a civil one in which the protesters were “overawed” to be speaking to him. Protesters and Nixon’s staff remember it differently, mostly ramblings without sentence structure and trying to make small talk by Nixon. At one point he said “I know probably most of you think I’m an SOB. But I want you to know that I understand just how you feel.”

He did listen to their complaints and concerns. He talked about traveling to Prague, Warsaw and Asia, but it was hard for those listening to really grasp what he was trying to say. Overall I think he just wanted to re-engage in human interaction, to feel part of the larger society with which he had been largely removed in his role as President. To try and convince someone, even if it was himself, that he wasn’t a bad guy.

Fast forward to June 1, 2020. President Trump has been watching the protesting play out in the streets of cities of the country over the death of George Floyd.

Only it wasn’t just about Floyd, but a long history of similar instances that have happened over the years. This was just the next evolution of the societal reaction to those events. Trump to this point had tweeted out some comments that were mostly not well received, some containing language from former white supremacists, but had largely not been a public factor on the issue. He affirmed his displeasure with the death of Floyd but focused more on the reaction that led some to violent response due to their frustration. Then it became apparent that opportunists were engaging in looting as communities fought to keep the violence down through self policing by protesters, civilians standing guard over businesses and homes, and police departments were scrambling to stop the violent actors while also overreacting in places to peaceful protests as well. Curfews then started to be invoked. Finally, on May 31, 2020, during one such protest in Washington DC near the White House, the president was moved to a bunker for approximately 30 minutes while DC police worked to push the protesters back.

The image of a weak president unwilling to do anything to stop the violence was forming. This was something that Trump couldn’t let continue, he had an election to win in the fall. Unlike Nixon he didn’t appear deeply personally affected by the events playing out in front of him. So he decided to take action to assure to the people that he was a strong leader and he would solve the problem himself if needed.

In a 7 minute speech, the President called once again to support investigating the death of George Floyd and respected peaceful protesters while calling out the violent actions the result of antifa, labelling them as terrorists. He even threatened to call out the military to operate on domestic soil to stop the violent actions if the states didn’t ‘get tough’, something unthought of as a possible suggestion by a president in quite a long time.

However, while he was extolling the respect he had for peaceful protest, the DC Police were violently breaking up a lawful peaceful protest that was taking place just outside of the White House. Tear gas was deployed. Batons and shields were swung at protesters and media in an effort to quickly clear the area. The reason why became clear soon, the President wanted to finish his speech and then walk to a church that had become a symbol to his supporters of the violence that was taking place for a photo op.

The church had briefly caught fire and was quickly put out but it was a rallying point that he felt he could use for bolstering his image. He wanted the people to see him being a strong leader and a man of god and law and order. Unlike Nixon he wasn’t interested in trying to re-engage with the people, with society itself. He wasn’t trying to hear the complaints of the people who were protesting. He wanted a boost in his approval ratings.

Unfortunately for President Trump, all of this was caught on video and broadcast to the world, the violent pushing back of a peaceful protest for a photo op. The emperor’s clothes were laid bare. This was no Nixonian moment of self reflection and inner turmoil, this was a cynical attempt to display strength for political, and possibly narcissistic, reasons. It highlighted to anyone who was on the fence that he was willing to do. What kind of mindset he was operating within.

When your actions make Nixon seem compassionate and thoughtful that should make anyone who understands their place in history and what impact they have on society give pause to reconsider what they are doing. At least, it would for most people.

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