President Donald Trump has for years used Twitter, his rallies, and the White House podium as bully pulpits to launch harassment campaigns against his chosen targets: women, people of color, immigrants, protesters, reporters, Democrats, rivals, widowers, employees of social media companies. In the early hours of Friday, he was finally held somewhat accountable, when Twitter hid a tweet threatening state violence against people protesting the police killing of George Floyd, a black man in Minneapolis.
The move was celebrated by some of Trump’s critics, met with conflicted thoughts by those concerned about the power of social media companies, and with condemnation by the president’s supporters. It came one day after Trump issued an executive order that aims to make it easier for people to sue social media companies, a fight he has framed as a free speech issue after Twitter labeled two of his tweets as potential misinformation. In the same meeting where he signed the order, he also said he would shut down Twitter altogether if he could, in case anyone thought the issue was actually free speech rather than a personal campaign by a president who cannot stomach being challenged, even in the smallest way.
Is it useful to have direct access to the president’s brain? To know that not only would he like to unleash the military on protesters, but that he carries a saying from the 1960s by a racist Miami police chief — ”when the looting starts, the shooting starts” — in his back pocket, typed out to the world as if it was no big deal? There are those who, somehow, after three years of this, believe that Trump doesn’t always understand the references he is making — like when he praised the “bloodlines” of famed anti-Semite Henry Ford during a visit to a Ford factory in Michigan last week. The content of the Minneapolis tweet shows that to be untrue.
The debate is not dissimilar to the questions raised by Trump’s weekslong daily briefings near the start of the coronavirus crisis — is it harmful for him to suck up all the oxygen? Or is it useful, including for the undecided or embarrassed white Trump voters who will swing the election in November, to be stripped of the privileged choice to ignore what he is really like?
These questions will rage, but what they obscure is the effect on the people on whom Trump sets his ire. His tweets have casualties. The effects are real. That was spelled out powerfully this week in a letter by Timothy Klausutis, a widower caught in the crosshairs of Trump’s erratic and conspiracy-laden missives about his dead wife.
It’s also something that Gretchen Whitmer, the governor of Michigan, thinks about. After Trump’s tweets, and statements — complete with nicknames, references to “that woman,” “woman governor,” and more — calling out her handling of the COVID crisis, protesters descended on the state capitol. They also descended on her home, where she lives with her husband and daughters.
“We all stood in the front of the residence and looked out the window and saw armed gunmen out there with automatic rifles standing yards from the front door,” Whitmer told me this week. “It's really destructive and it's hurtful.”
Asked if she thought Trump shared the blame for the harassment she is experiencing, she got quiet for a moment and then said “yes.”
“I never anticipated being in the midst of a global pandemic, having to fend off political attacks while I'm trying to save lives — political attacks from officeholders in Washington, DC, and here at our state capitol,” she said. “I have made a lot of the same observations my male colleagues have — in swing states and in not swing states — and I have been treated differently.”
It’s not just who Trump targets — overwhelmingly men and women of color, white women, immigrants — it is how he does it.
“It's messaging and it's symbolism,” Nina Muckenthaler, the president of the National Organization for Women in Michigan, told me. “He refuses to refer to her as governor or use her name,” she said of Trump’s language about Whitmer. “When you're reducing a person to a pronoun — her or she — and totally ignoring their status as a political leader, you’re erasing that. And you're erasing them as a person, you're erasing their identity. Once you do that, it's much easier to hate people or to make them a target.”
“It's a form of disempowering them or trying to disempower them as people and to turn them into objects and depersonalize them, and therefore it becomes much easier to target them and it's much more dangerous,” Muckenthaler said. “I think it is an act of violence, at least symbolic violence. And I think it can lead to actual physical violence.”
It’s a direct line from there to calling the protesters in Minneapolis “thugs.”
Eboni Taylor, the Michigan executive director of Mothering Justice, a Michigan group that focuses on mothers of color, said hearing Trump’s attacks on the leadership in Michigan — not just Whitmer, but Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and Attorney General Dana Nessel, the first openly gay woman to hold statewide office — was “the nail in the coffin for me. It actually was really hurtful.”
“I think a lot of us have wondered, wow, what if I ran for secretary of state?" Taylor said. "What if this were me? How much more would be coming down on me? How much more would this be coming down on another woman of color with the added layer because we've seen how he's responded to folks of color?
“How much worse would this be, from protests to the armed folks showing up to the governor's home? How much further could this be taken if it were a black woman or a Latinx woman?”
There is a keen awareness that Trump uses his Twitter account, and his choice of targets, not just to set the agenda, but to rile up his active followers.
The call to shoot “looters” was an obvious provocation of Twitter’s newfound concern over the president’s tweets when Trump sent it out just after midnight Friday. That was made even more explicit by Friday morning, when the official White House Twitter account copy-and-pasted the message, practically daring Twitter to step in again, which it ultimately did. The cycle this sets off among Trump’s loyalists has been repeated throughout his presidency: act as some of the worst harassers on the platform, and then cry censorship when the rules are applied. And so they become the victims of the narrative — rather than the people whom they are going after.
Speaking about his targeting of the women in Michigan, Carolyn Cassin, president of Michigan Women Forward, said, “I think fundamentally it is not as much gender motivated as it is politically motivated. There's gender bias in everything just like there's racial bias.
“But do I think that our president gets up every morning and thinks about how he can trash women? Probably not. I don't think he thinks we're important enough to trash. I would say that I think he gets up every morning and thinks about what plays well to his base.”
That is clear in his polar opposite approaches to the largely white protesters in Michigan who have been demanding Whitmer change her coronavirus strategy, and to those protesting racist police violence in Minneapolis. To Trump, gun-toting white protesters are “very good people” who deserve to be spoken to; protesters in Minneapolis are “thugs” who deserve to be shot. The shadow of his “very fine people on both sides” comments regarding the extremists in Charlottesville looms large.
An ABC News investigation published last summer found there were at least 36 criminal cases “where Trump was invoked in direct connection with violent acts, threats of violence or allegations of assault.” It’s not hard to imagine what his call to arms in Minnesota could lead to next.