President Trump's impromptu press conference today was a shocking display of his moral depravity and his allegiance to bigotry. There are so many things wrong with it, in so many stunning ways, that everyone is trying to digest it and focusing on different parts. But one particularly scary thing has not yet gotten much attention: Trump shows a nearly complete lack of interest in preventing more bloodshed like this. That is unprecedented, and extremely dangerous.
Every previous president of the United States has been deeply averse to civil violence and has always worked to prevent it. That's only natural. Civil violence and disorder are the opposite of government; our leaders' power is vested in exactly the order that civil violence disrupts. Our long national struggle over civil rights, which has often led to street unrest by various parties, has highlighted this. Every president, whatever their party loyalty or racial politics, has made keeping order and avoiding violence a paramount goal. Presidents who were sympathetic with angry segregationists, or who needed them for electoral reasons, still wanted to prevent any violence or lawbreaking by segregationist mobs. Even politicians who were themselves personally racist did not want racist violence in the streets, because preventing violence in the streets was always seen as crucial. In the same way, politicians who were for progress on civil rights were nonetheless very much against any violence by, say, the Black Panthers, or any riots in African-American neighborhoods. Preventing riots is central to the President's job, and to the President's authority.
In a real sense, you can say that JFK became a pro-civil rights president because it was eventually his only way to get peace in the streets. When he entered the White House, civil rights was not on his agenda. Whatever personal liberalism he had on civil rights issues was strictly abstract; he was not going to act on that. But then he had to deal with furious, angry segregationist mobs and with Southern politicians from his own party who refused to control those mobs. Some of his phone calls with Southern governors (which JFK taped) are desperate and frustrating. And the transcripts make it clear that, more than anything else, Kennedy does not want to see anyone hurt or killed. Eventually JFK moves to back the civil rights agenda strongly because it's the right thing to do but also because he can't get any cooperation from the other side, so he just has to beat them.
But today President Trump did none of the things American presidents do to calm things down and prevent violence. He excused provocative behavior, claiming that white supremacists were "quietly protesting" when they were actually shouting about hating Jews. Worse still, he made it clear that he favored one side, and justified their violence to the greatest degree he could. He even said that some of the white supremacists were "fine people" and not white supremacists at all. NONE of that is what you do when you want people to stop doing something. All of it was aimed at excusing what they had done and signaling them NOT to stop. Ask yourself white the alt-right knuckleheads think when they hear Trump talking like that. What they hear is, "Keep going, fellas, I'm on your side."
That is just crazy. It shows Trump's complete, depraved indifference to public safety. And it exposes his indifference, or actual hostility, to the rule of law which his office embodies. The President is meant to enforce public order, and that legal order is the foundation of the President's power. And so every previous president has put questions of order-vs.-disorder before pettier questions of right-vs.-left or party-vs.-party. Trump has no seeming regard for public order, and sees things instead in ideological or partisan terms, as Us vs. Them. (None of his predecessors ever, even once, thought of any street thugs as part of "us.") Or, even worse, Trump owes his allegiance to chaos itself. He is a representative of disorder, and thrives on it. That is a terrifying thought.
I would usually say that this is the kind of behavior that could get someone killed. But it's too late to say that now. Someone is already dead.
(cross-posted from Dagblog. All comments welcome there, not here.)