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The Only Strength Is Empathy

Trump’s bloodthirsty tweets are no match for a grassroots movement built on compassion

It’s no secret that Trump has an infatuation with brute force. He loves big men — the bigger, the better. He buddies up to authoritarian dictators around the world, and he models his regime on theirs. Rarely is he happier than when encouraging a MAGA rally to rough up a protester. When interviewed for Playboy in 1990, less than a year after Chinese troops massacred protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, he praised the government’s ruthless and deadly response: “Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength,” he said. “That shows you the power of strength.” This asinine tautology is the sum of his philosophy on state violence.

For years, too, Trump has taken a fond view of U.S. Army Generals Douglas MacArthur and George S. Patton, both infamous figures of 20th century warfare. These men, like Trump, were obsessive about their image in the media of the day — and so curated legacies of the single-minded “toughness” that our current president holds so dear.

But this stubborn, combative attitude, as students of history know, led to disgrace: MacArthur was relieved of command by President Truman in 1951 for almost escalating the Korean War into a global conflict with his insubordinate aim of attacking China, while Patton, who had previously taken heat for striking American soldiers, got the sack in 1945 for suggesting the elimination of Nazism in occupied Europe was not a priority. It’s not worth pondering Trump’s ignorance of (or indifference to) these details; he knows MacArthur/Patton only as a brand of masculine grit.

Time will tell, meanwhile, how the leadership of Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey is remembered. He took office two years ago, a progressive with an eye to police reform. But, like his predecessor, Betsy Hodges, Frey has come up short in this area. According to Michelle Gross, president of the local civil rights group Communities United Against Police Brutality, Frey and his administration “have resisted every accountability measure we have proposed,” including “a strong citizen review process, officer drug testing and mental health assessments,” per the Los Angeles Times.

But even as we hold him accountable for these failures, we can value his willingness to say that the uprisings in Minneapolis and across the nation have hundreds of years of racist cruelty as their backdrop. It matters that he acknowledges the continuous trauma that extends from the era of slavery, to Reconstruction, to Jim Crow, to mass incarceration and killer cops today. And it is a sign of strength for a white leader to say that the black community is right to be sad and angry. This empathy is only a starting point for change — but a crucial one.   

Trump is hoping to bully state governors into a phase of repression that snuffs out that compassion as intolerable weakness. His language is styled to dehumanize protesters — just like the ones who showed up 30 years ago in Tiananmen Square — while denying any shred of legitimacy to their righteous cause. The references to his favorite generals establish this confrontation, in his diseased fantasy, as total war, with faceless enemies undeserving of mercy, only swift punishment. Nothing but an existential threat may countenance this line of attack, so that is the phantom he conjures.

That, though, is cowardice, not strength: To be so afraid of what people are peacefully chanting in public that you demand military intervention, strict curfews and ridiculous prison terms, if not summary execution, for participants in grassroots democratic activism. To go into hiding when the citizens you are supposed to work for express their agony.

The organizers of Black Lives Matter and associated movements taking to the streets over the past week are not the feral marauders that right-wing commentators and cable news describe. They are passing out water and snacks to keep each other energized, trading off megaphones as their voices finally give out, coordinating medical assistance, urging calm and listing the names of the dead — as well as the living friends and family they fight for. They are unarmed, except for this feeling of invincible unity, which comes from giving a shit about each other.

It’s the police firing tear gas, bean bags, flash bangs and rubber bullets, driving into crowds and cracking bodies with their batons, acting out the everyone-for-himself panic that Trump radiates from the very top. If they had true strength, the strength of empathy, they would take off their badges and renounces this unchecked aggression that the rest of us are demanding an end to.

That Trump promises a wholesale invasion and occupation of his own country — retweeting the sniveling bootlickers who want a show of “overwhelming force,” yet lacking the popular support to deliver a Rose Garden speech without the sound of explosions in the air — tells you he’s out of moves. Fortitude isn’t made by threats, nor does it spring from narcissism. Because he empathizes with and protects no one but himself, he has no genuine allies, nobody to save him, just the apparatus of large-scale murder that is the U.S. government.

MacArthur and Patton did far less than turn this machine against their fellow Americans, and they still paid a significant price. What Trump considers a pose of strength has always been the stink of desperation.