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Society & Culture

Confrontation No Answer for America

Jun 17, 2020
  • Zhao Minghao

    Professor, Institute of International Studies, Fudan University

The ongoing massive demonstrations and protests in the United States are yet another test of President Trump’s ability to govern. The death of African-American George Floyd at the hands of the police has sparked outrage about police brutality and systemic racism in the U.S.

Trump himself is to blame for the fact that the demonstrations and protests have evolved in just over 10 days into the worst civil unrest in the country since the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.

First, faced with Floyd’s death, Trump failed to give the victim the sympathy he deserved. Trump only had a very brief telephone conversation with members of Floyd’s family, who were not given the opportunity to express their grievances and demands.

Second, Trump is reluctant to unequivocally condemn the racism behind this murder, knowing that his base of voters is lower-middle-class white people. He identifies with white supremacy deep in his heart.

Third, facing the angry protesters, Trump did not try to comfort them, but instead added fuel to the fire with strong words, even attempting to seek political gain by inciting hatred and confrontation.

Adding to the controversy, with tens of thousands of National Guard troops already deployed to deal with the protests, Trump tried to get the U.S. military to crack down on the protesters. The move was unequivocally opposed by military leaders, including Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, who did not want the military to treat the American public as the enemy, much less to reduce the military to a political instrument. Undoubtedly, it is crucial for U.S. democracy that the military remains apolitical.

It should not be overlooked that racism is also a problem within the United States military. Nineteen percent of the U.S. military’s active-duty soldiers are African-Americans, but they make up only 9 percent of the officers. The recent ban issued by the United States Marine Corps on the use of racist symbols, such as the Confederate battle flag, by its soldiers is a testament to the magnitude of this type of racism.

Today, increasing numbers of Americans are realizing that they are not just facing a mess caused by the issue of racism but a crisis at the democratic and constitutional levels. Trump’s abuse of presidential power, the lack of strong congressional checks and balances on the White House and the emergence of illiberal democracy all leave many Americans worried.

Democratic presidential candidate Joseph Biden accused Trump of creating division and hatred, and tweeted that, “For our children, for the very soul of our country, we must defeat him.” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo scoffed at Trump’s attempts to use the military to quell the demonstrations and bluntly stated that Trump had become the biggest threat to the American way of life.

Trump’s approach has also triggered an unprecedented wave of criticism within the Republican Party. Many Republicans, including former President George W. Bush, have publicly expressed their discontent and concern. Bush said, “It is time for America to examine our tragic failures.”

A senior Republican political figure, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, called Trump a threat to democracy and said the president’s actions have deviated from the U.S. Constitution. Powell made it clear that he would vote for Biden in this year’s U.S. election.

Moreover, James Mattis, who served as Secretary of Defense in the Trump administration, denounced the president in an unusually strong tone: “Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people — does not even pretend to try. Instead, he tries to divide us.”

In addition to criticism from within the United States, Trump’s approach has also sparked criticism in the international community. Britain, Canada, Germany, Australia, South Korea and other countries have seen large numbers of people taking to the streets against racist abominations and express moral support for the protests in the U.S.

The European Union expressed grave concern that the White House’s misguided response to Floyd’s death has exacerbated the widening values gap between the United States and Europe. German Chancellor Angela Merkel euphemistically criticized Trump for his “highly controversial political style.”

United Nations officials and experts have described Floyd’s death as a modern-day “racial terror lynching.” Floyd’s family and civil rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, have urged the UN Human Rights Council to investigate the case, even though the United States withdrew from the council in 2018.

The international community’s discontent with the Trump administration also stems from Trump’s bullying of the weak, which is based on the dominance of whites and the West. Trump has publicly referred to African countries as “shit-hole countries.” He has also made a number of offensive remarks about women and adopted much-criticized policy initiatives against Muslims and undocumented immigrants and their children.

Floyd’s death has plunged the African continent into outrage. The chair of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, urged U.S. authorities to “intensify their efforts to ensure the total elimination of all forms of discrimination based on race.”

In an attempt to deflect blame, Robert O’Brien, Trump’s national security adviser, accused Zimbabwe of being behind the current unrest in the United States. This  only added to the public cynicism over the Trump administration.

In short, Trump’s response to Floyd’s death and the massive demonstrations and protests that followed was as clumsy as his response to the American COVID-19 epidemic. It demonstrates that his governing ability is low. He made his way to the White House in 2016 by inciting confrontation and division, even though most Americans don’t support that approach. Trump won without a majority of votes nationwide.

Whether it is the epidemic or the unrest over racism, the average American has paid a huge price for Trump’s maladministration in terms of both lives and property.

It is worth noting that the Trump administration has also tried to foment confrontation and division in international affairs, especially by going out of its way to suppress China. This practice of increasing tensions between major powers and forcing other countries to choose sides will inevitably exact a heavy toll on the people of more countries.

Trump and senior White House officials should do some soul-searching. They must come to understand that confrontation will never be the answer to America’s internal and external challenges.

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