The World’s Weakest Strongman

Donald Trump’s use of violence and division isn’t a symbol of authority—it’s a sign of desperation.

By , the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University and a columnist for Foreign Policy.
U.S. President Donald Trump holds up his fist as he leaves after speaking during a Make America Great Again rally at Williamsport Regional Airport in Montoursville, Pennsylvania, on May 20, 2019.
U.S. President Donald Trump holds up his fist as he leaves after speaking during a Make America Great Again rally at Williamsport Regional Airport in Montoursville, Pennsylvania, on May 20, 2019. Brendan Smialowski / AFP) (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

If you know where the continuing wave of public protests in the United States is going to lead us, you’re smarter than I am. In fact, figuring out what is going to happen when mass protesters go up against the coercive apparatus of the government is inherently difficult to predict and maybe impossible.

Part of the reason, as Timur Kuran explained in a seminal article (and subsequent book), is that an individual’s propensity to rebel (or, in this case, join a demonstration) is a form of private information that is impossible to ascertain in advance, even in a democracy. Even today, it is hard for outside observers to know what might be the final straw that would provoke more people to go out into the streets or what sort of government response might lead them to stay home. And as Susanne Lohmann and other theorists have argued, protests also benefit from “cascade effects”: You might not be willing to be the first person out in the street, but you might be willing to be number 5,000. In this way, protest movements can grow larger over time and especially if the government reacts in ways that reinforce the initial burst of popular anger.

President Donald Trump (and other violence junkies like Republican Sen. Tom Cotton) seems to think that all that is needed to make the demonstrations cease is a ruthless show of force. He should think again. Overwhelming force sometimes works, especially when there is a genuine threat to regime stability, the public at large is supportive, and one can count on the security forces to obey orders and respond brutally. But as the Shah of Iran and other autocrats have discovered, wielding the mailed fist can also turn peaceful protests violent, drive more people into the opposition and onto the streets, and eventually cause the security apparatus to switch sides or dissolve. Even if a tyrant ultimately “wins,” the country may be but a hollow shell (see: Syria).

More importantly, we are nowhere near the level of public disorder that would justify all-out repression of the sort that Trump and Cotton seem to want. Yes, there has been some criminal looting; those responsible for it should be roundly condemned, arrested, and tried. But preliminary data from the Crowd Counting Consortium suggests that the overwhelming majority of the demonstrations have been remarkably peaceful, with violent incidents being the rare exception rather than the norm. Moreover, in several cases, it appears that overreaction by local police forces triggered the violence, not the other way around.

Most important of all: The protesters are not trying to destroy public institutions or upend the constitutional order. No one is setting fire to the U.S. Capitol; storming the gates of the White House; trying to kidnap mayors, senators, or chiefs of police; or even confronting legislators with guns and other threatening gestures, like those right-wing goons did in Michigan a few weeks ago. Not a single governor has requested federal assistance to deal with the demonstrations. According to the FBI, that supposedly dangerous bogeyman known as the “Antifa” movement is not fomenting violence (by contrast, some right-wing militias appear to be). Fox News must be terribly disappointed.

Instead, the main threat to the constitutional order is coming not from the protesters but from the White House itself. That is the main reason why we are now seeing public pushback from U.S. military leaders (both retired and active) who understand that there is no need for the kind of massive force Trump seems to want. They also understand that the American people are not a “battlespace” to be “dominated” and that the armed services’ proper role is to uphold the Constitution and defend the country against foreign enemies, not to advance a president’s personal political fortunes.

This deeply troubling situation reveals one thing clearly: Trump, an incompetent and increasingly desperate president, has no other cards left to play. The economy is circling the drain, and unlike his predecessor—who successfully led the country out of the 2008 recession—Trump has no plan for reviving it anytime soon. The most recent jobs report notwithstanding, tens of millions of Americans will still be out of work on Election Day, and he knows it. The country is in this condition because Trump’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic was embarrassingly inept. His claim that it would magically disappear was a typical Trumpian lie, and his lies didn’t stop there, even after 100,000 Americans had died. Meanwhile, countries blessed with more able leaders are already starting to recover and reopen safely. That situation won’t change either, and there’s every reason to fear another spike of infections come fall. Finally, his impulsive, know-nothing approach to foreign policy has simultaneously emboldened adversaries and angered allies while failing to deliver a single significant foreign-policy achievement. He has no idea how to fix that problem either.

His only recourse, therefore, is to sow as much division as he can, even if it does more permanent damage to the country as a whole. Indeed, Trump has every reason to want the level of violence to get worse, both to distract us from his other failures and to convince Americans that they are facing a massive threat to public order and that any and all measures are justified. It really is mind-boggling: For the first time in U.S. history, an American president may genuinely believe that openly encouraging violence and disorder at home could benefit him politically. Not even Richard Nixon went quite that far.

The appropriate response, therefore, is to deny him the carnage that he so desperately needs. As my colleague Erica Chenoweth and her co-author Maria Stephan have shown, nonviolent civil resistance is a far more effective means of social change than violent insurrection. The reason is simple: Violent acts make it easier for the state to justify repression, and the coercive arm of the state is usually stronger than the protesters. If protests remain peaceful, however, it becomes harder to justify repression and harder to convince the police or National Guard or other coercive agencies to carry it out. If they try, other Americans will see it for what it is and be properly repulsed. Violent crackdowns on peaceful demonstrations will be a further reminder of just how badly this president has failed the nation.

But here’s what really worries me. Although the current protests are primarily about racial injustice—for obvious and entirely understandable reasons—some of the problems America faces transcend race. In addition to legitimate concerns about racial inequality (including the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on minority populations), the protests are also another manifestation of mass political anger at a political and economic elite that in recent years has done a better job of enriching itself than addressing broader social needs and is rarely held accountable. It is the anger directed at police forces that resist reform and refuse to fire officers who repeatedly commit abuses. It is the anger directed at the Wall Street insiders who cratered the economy in 2008 and were never held accountable. It is the rage aimed at the Harvey Weinsteins who abused power for decades before being exposed and punished. It is the frustration of watching so-called foreign-policy experts like John Bolton and Elliott Abrams receiving endless opportunities to screw up. This broader perception of elite betrayal and privilege is what transformed the unlikely and otherwise dissimilar figures of Trump and Bernie Sanders into formidable political forces.

Back in 2016, Trump capitalized on broad popular discontent by falsely portraying himself as a blunt-speaking outsider who would “drain the swamp” and bring his (fictitious) business acumen to bear on the nation’s problems. The con now lies fully exposed, even if his supporters still cannot bring themselves to see it. Far from draining the swamp, he staffed his administration with lobbyists, plutocrats, loyalists, hacks, and unqualified family members while he continued to profit at public expense. His chaotic management style produced an endless series of resignations, firings, and acting appointments, leading to the highest turnover rate of any administration in U.S. history and rendering the federal government even less capable of meeting the country’s needs. Suddenly faced with a public health emergency and a grave economic crisis, Trump has exhibited zero capacity to comfort, unite, inspire, or govern. Lying, preening, and blaming others are the only political skills he ever mastered.

My guess is that the level of anger is going to get worse between now and November—especially in the nation’s cities—and it will expand beyond the issue of racial injustice. As federal support payments dry up and personal savings are exhausted, more and more people will be unable to pay rent and will face eviction. More and more young people will have to put their dreams for the future on hold. People will continue to get sick, some of them will die, and all of us will wonder when we will be able to resume some semblance of a normal life. Americans will watch with envy as better governed nations begin to reopen and recover and wonder why they are unable to follow suit.

And Donald the Divider will be right there, pouring gasoline on the flames, in the hope of sparking an inferno and resurrecting his failing fortunes. We know his playbook by heart: He’ll blame America’s problems on China, the World Health Organization, Nancy Pelosi, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton’s email server, the news media, the so-called deep state, fluoridated drinking water, and, if necessary, he’ll drag in George Soros, the Spanish Inquisition, and the Illuminati. Anyone but himself. He’ll call Joe Biden silly names and invent more dark lies about his family.

If the demonstrations continue, maybe he’ll use them as a pretext to justify an armed crackdown so that his base will continue to see him as a strong, manly leader. Maybe he’ll get Attorney General Bill Barr to conjure up specious legal arguments to justify suspending the election. Or maybe he’ll try to use some of the country’s security forces to suppress the vote. Who knows? There is no limit to how far this pathetic excuse for a leader will go. Because at this point he has no other options.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University and a columnist for Foreign Policy.