The criticism that President Trump has disregarded many of our country’s norms and democratic values is not new. We’ve written about it several times before — in particular, about how the violation of values is a bigger deal than the breaking of norms. But law enforcement officials using tear gas on protesters outside the White House to clear a path for Trump to visit a church nearby — for what seemed to amount to a photo-op of him holding a Bible — was arguably one of most significant moments of his breaking with such values during his presidency.
It was essentially a three-part violation. In being generally unsupportive of the protests against the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, Trump is in tension with a core democratic value — America taking additional steps to ensure people are treated equally, no matter their race. Trump’s decision to break up the protest then subverted one of America’s core democratic values, the right to peacefully protest. Finally, by involving the National Guard and senior military officials in the action against the protesters, Trump also disregarded the democratic value that the military and police not be used for political purposes.
We’re going to unpack what it means that Trump disregarded these democratic values in this article, but let’s first briefly explain what we mean when we say “democratic values.” Much of the commentary around Trump suggests that he is violating “norms” — or, put another way, Trump is not doing things the “normal” way like his predecessors (think former Presidents George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush and Barack Obama). But, in reality, what often concerns people about Trump and his allies is that they are attacking core democratic values, not norms. To put this bluntly, basically every American president before Abraham Lincoln took actions to help perpetuate slavery in some way — being pro-slavery was the norm. But slavery was against democratic values of freedom and equality.
So let’s look at Trump’s move on Monday in terms of core democratic values that he may have violated:
Expanding racial equality
The protesters contend that the police in Minneapolis who killed Floyd, and police departments across the country, have a history of treating black people unfairly compared with white people.
So Trump’s reluctance to embrace these protesters suggests he is not particularly interested in policies that seek to address past or current discrimation against black Americans.
That’s nothing new for Trump — as we have written before, he seems to practice a kind of white identity politics where he does not do a ton to reach out to black or Latino Americans. Of course, this behavior is not exactly new for American presidents either — both Democratic and Republican commanders-in-chief have adopted policies that have made life harder for black Americans. But it is surprising in the context of America in 2020, when a clear majority of Americans think police are unfair to black people and think the killing of Floyd was unjust, that Trump is doing little to suggest he is aligned with that cause amid the protests.
The right to peacefully protest
The right to assemble and protest peacefully is protected in the First Amendment to the Constitution. And normally, both Democrats and Republicans support this democratic value — at least in the abstract. After all, American history is full of protests, from the civil rights movement to the creation of the tea party, and these movements are usually celebrated looking back, even if they were unpopular at the time.
“There is a fundamental — a Constitutional — right to protest, and I’m against clearing out a peaceful protest for a photo op that treats the Word of God as a political prop,” said Sen. Ben Sasse, in a rare rebuke of Trump from an elected official in his own party.
The fact that Trump was trying to end the protests at all was problematic. But the way he and his team chose to do so — by having law enforcement officials fire tear gas at protesters — made the situation even worse. It was one of the most aggressive ways possible to end the protests, and it potentially established a way to limit them in the future, if people are scared they will be injured or killed if they protest.
It’s important to emphasize that the Trump administration is not alone in using tear gas amid these protests of Floyd’s death. Cities across the country, including many run by Democratic mayors, are using tear gas on protesters too, arguing that they are violating curfews or that some want to harm police officers.
But two things distinguish Trump’s action from those mayors’. First, the people in D.C. were not in violation of the city’s 7 p.m. curfew — the tear gas was used about 20 minutes before the curfew went into effect, and it seems to have been used for no other purpose than to clear the protesters out of Trump’s walking path.1 Second, the president of the U.S. allowing the use of tear gas on civilians protesting peacefully is simply a bigger deal than a mayor or governor doing it. The fact that Trump has used tear gas on protesters could lead to its use by more officials, too.
This is another instance, though, where norms and democratic values have not always aligned. While the First Amendment protects the right of people to freely assemble and petition the government for the redress of grievances, government interference with this right is not uncommon. But the escalation we saw from the White House on Monday is.
Police and the military not being aligned with one political side
It’s not just that the president’s actions violated the right of people to protest, either. How he did this — by using law enforcement officials — matters too. Democracy scholars believe that the police and military must avoid being tied to any one political party or leader, and instead must view themselves as defending the broader public, following laws and rules no matter which party is in charge. Being apolitical has been a long-standing tradition of the U.S. military in particular.
But during Trump’s presidency, the idea that our police and military are separate from partisan politics has appeared increasingly strained. For instance, the national Fraternal Order of Police and other law enforcement groups were strongly behind Trump during his 2016 campaign. And the Minneapolis police force recently faced pushback over its policy of preventing officers from attending Trump rallies in uniform. The president has even gone as far as to refer to military officers as “my generals.” And on Monday, the nation’s highest-ranking military officer, Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley, was on site at the White House before the tear gas was fired at the protesters.
It’s a tricky balance, as individual police and military personnel have the right to support candidates and hold political views. But as institutions, it’s critical that they don’t work for any one politician or any one political side. However, by encouraging the police and military to take on the protesters across the country, Trump has crossed a crucial and dangerous line.
This could have significant ramifications as the act of policing has become a more partisan issue. Pew Research Center polling conducted in 2016 found that nearly 70 percent of police officers thought that deaths of black Americans during encounters with police were isolated incidents. But while there is not much recent polling of police officers, a 2019 YouGov survey found that an overwhelming majority of Democrats thought these deaths were part of a broader pattern.
A president concerned about this dynamic and its implications might try to ease those tensions. But Trump, in both his words and his actions on Monday, is doing the opposite.
To conclude, in a democracy that is running smoothly, most citizens may not think very much about our shared norms and democratic values, but America is not running smoothly right now. That means we are forced to grapple with what these norms and values mean — and why they matter.