He’s been saying it with his words all along — on Twitter, at press conferences, on Fox News — but on Tuesday, President Donald Trump said it with his actions: His visit to Kenosha, Wisconsin, was not about police shooting another Black man, or systemic racism. It was about forcing the nation into a false and dangerous choice: Are you with the anti-racism demonstrators, or are you with law enforcement?
Trump hasn’t used the power of his office to soothe the polarization gripping the nation around the protests, which in the past week have turned deadly in both Kenosha and Portland, Oregon. Rarely does the president touch on the underlying issues that sparked the protests or rioting. When he tried to, on Monday night, he equated a police officer shooting a Black man seven times in the back to a sports cliché. He used the idea again during a Tuesday roundtable in Kenosha. "They choke, sometimes," he said of police officers.
Instead of the root causes, Trump went to Kenosha to focus on the aftermath of the shooting of Jacob Blake: the destruction of businesses, the assistance of federal law enforcement, and rebuilding efforts. John Antaramian, the Democratic mayor of Kenosha, fearful that Trump could exacerbate what has already been a week of furious protest in the city, warned the president should not visit the city — some of Blake’s family members said they didn’t want him either — but Trump pushed ahead anyway.
He set the tone for the event ahead of time, with a tweet as he was boarding the plane: “Heading to Kenosha, Wisconsin to thank law enforcement and the National Guard for a job well done.”
Upon arrival, the president was greeted with Blue Lives Matter signs and Black Lives Matter signs, an example of the divide happening in America.
He toured property that was damaged in the violence after protests in the city last week following the police shooting. Then there was a roundtable with Attorney General Bill Barr, Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf, Sen. Ron Johnson, local law enforcement, and two Black pastors.
“Violent mobs demolished or damaged at least 25 businesses, burned down public buildings, and threw bricks at police officers, which your police officers won't stand for,” Trump said during the roundtable sounding more like a police official at a press briefing. “These are not acts of peaceful protests, but really, domestic terror.”
It was someone other than the president, Pastor James Ward, who was the first person to mention Blake by name.
“Most of the conversation here today has been about civil law, but until we can really focus on spiritual and moral law and change the hearts of people, we’ll have to continue to, to build bigger jails and bigger prisons, until we can bring our nation's back to the place of the spiritual and moral law,” Ward said, striking a different tone.
Mark Meadows, the president’s chief of staff, told BuzzFeed News he had been talking to Ward in the days leading up to the president’s visit.
The president only spoke generally about Blake when asked directly by a reporter. He said multiple times that he felt “terribly for anyone who goes through that” and that the incident is under investigation. He added that while he had not spoken with Blake’s mother, “I hear she’s a fine woman.”
“You just keep getting back to the opposite subject,” Trump said when asked by a reporter if systemic racism is a problem in this country. “We should talk about the kind of violence that we’ve seen in Portland, and here, and other places.”
Trump’s campaign team as a whole has avoided talking about the specifics of police use of force against Black men. The reason for that might be simply that the president’s supporters don’t want to hear about it.
“I think it's important for him to keep saying what he's saying, has been saying: ‘We need to get control of this,’” Joan Cullen, 47, told BuzzFeed News on Monday when asked what she wanted to hear from the president during his visit to Kenosha.
Cullen and about 30 others had come out Monday to a campaign event in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, to hear the president’s daughter-in-law Lara Trump speak in a parking lot outside the Bucks County Republican Committee office.
It’s the same message Richard Tems was expecting when he told BuzzFeed News he wanted to hear that Trump will protect the people's homes, businesses, and lives. “Unlike the Democrats who do nothing to protect the lives,” Tems, 72, added.
Jim Worthington echoed the same sentiment. “I think his messaging should be that, you know, that this violence has to stop.”
Black supporters of Trump in Doylestown and at a nearby event later Monday were more interested in hearing Trump speak to policing issues directly.
“What I would like to hear him say is that there is definitely brokenness between minority communities and law enforcement,” said Milo Morris, a member of the Bucks County Republican Committee. “And that just like any other relationship, we need to take a 360-degree view of this.”
Daphne Goggins of Black Voices of Trump told BuzzFeed News, “He needs to go there and I think he needs to meet with the Blake family.”
But, as Trump showed Tuesday, that was never really the point.