WASHINGTON — President Trump has seized on the response in the streets to police brutality against Black men and women to bolster his re-election campaign, employing provocative and sometimes incendiary language and images to incite his followers, demonize his opponents or both.
He has sought to conflate all protesters with the small minority of people who have looted stores, started fires and engaged in violence against police officers. He has blamed street unrest on Democratic mayors and governors and even former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., his fall challenger.
He has also repeatedly threatened to deploy federal forces. And especially since a man affiliated with a right-wing group was shot and killed in Portland, Ore., on Saturday night, he has seemed to encourage freelance action by his own supporters who have showed up as well in places like Kenosha, Wis., eager to counter the protesters and sometimes engaging in violence themselves.
Mr. Trump’s approach, intended to divert attention from the human and economic costs of the pandemic, is consistent with a career of combative politics that play to racial animosities, going back to his time in business.
Since becoming president, he has seemed to equate white supremacists marching to preserve a Confederate statue in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017 to the people who demonstrated against them. And in 2018, during the midterm congressional campaign, he repeatedly warned that caravans of would-be immigrants heading to the southern border posed a national threat, a topic he quickly dropped after the elections.
Here is a breakdown of how Mr. Trump has sought to fuel partisan passions to his benefit during the summer of unrest touched off by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and other similar episodes that followed:
While aides maintain that Mr. Trump respects peaceful protesters, he regularly lumps them with those who have engaged in violence, calling them anarchists and thugs who hate America and likening the demonstrations to mob rule. “Protesters, your ass,” he said at a rally in New Hampshire on Friday.
He has at times exaggerated the extent of the violence and falsely attributed it across the board to the Antifa anti-fascist movement, one of his favorite targets. Over the weekend, he even retweeted a message from the conservative One America News Network asserting that the protests were actually a well-organized effort to mount a coup against him.
While Mr. Trump condemned the killing of Mr. Floyd shortly after it happened and signed a largely symbolic executive order meant to encourage police training, the president has done little since then to address the concerns of many Americans horrified by that encounter and others. Instead, he has focused on defending the police, who he says have been unfairly smeared and should not have their funding cut. He has also pushed back against critics, calling Black Lives Matter “a symbol of hate.” Some of the protesters, he has said, “don’t even know who George Floyd is.”
Mr. Trump has repeatedly blamed “weak” governors and mayors for unrest in “Democrat-led cities.” He has claimed that the turmoil represents what would happen in “Joe Biden’s America” if he is elected, even though it is happening in Donald Trump’s America.
“Without law enforcement, there is chaos,” he said at a White House news conference on Monday. “If the Democrats have that power, every city in this country could be another Portland.”
The president and his allies highlighted the issue as a signature theme of last week’s Republican National Convention and have sought to put Mr. Biden and other Democrats on the defensive by accusing them of not condemning violence, although in fact they have.
Threats to Use Force
A running theme of Mr. Trump’s statements and Twitter messages is his eagerness to send in federal agents or the National Guard even though governors and mayors have resisted it. The local police, he says about various cities, “aren’t allowed to do their thing” but if troops were brought in, they could end the violence almost instantaneously. “We could fix Portland in, I would say, 45 minutes,” he said the other day.
Mr. Trump has gone so far as to claim that he is “the only thing standing between the American dream and total anarchy, madness and chaos.”
The National Guard in each state reports to the governor, not the president. Mr. Trump could use his power under the two-century-old Insurrection Act to federalize a state’s guard units over the objections of a governor, but he has been reluctant to do so.
Encouraging Supporters to Act
Rather than call for calm, Mr. Trump has cheered on his own supporters to wade into the furor in the streets, setting up collisions that have led to even more violence. Kyle H. Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old who attended a Trump rally, showed up at a demonstration in Kenosha wielding a military-style rifle and was later charged with homicide after two protesters were shot to death.
On Monday, the president cast Mr. Rittenhouse’s alleged actions as self-defense. “He probably would have been killed,” Mr. Trump said.
Mr. Trump reposted a tweet in support of Mr. Rittenhouse over the weekend that called him “a good example of why I decided to vote for Trump.” The president also seemed to justify supporters who cruised through Portland firing paintballs and pepper spray at protesters (and at least one reporter), saying it “cannot be unexpected after 95 days of watching and incompetent Mayor admit that he has no idea what he is doing.”
Taylor Turner and Maya Blackstone contributed video research and production.