Donald Trump called himself the “president of law and order” as he ignored pleas to bring the nation together amid the worst unrest since the civil-rights era and resurrected the strategy that propelled him to victory in 2016.
Mr Trump’s pledge to deploy “thousands of heavily armed soldiers” on Monday to deal with what he described as angry mobs, came as military police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters demonstrating peacefully outside the White House over the killing of George Floyd.
In a highly choreographed scene designed to portray him as a tough leader — after police had cleared the way — Mr Trump walked out of the White House grounds across Lafayette Square to a church, trailed by a phalanx of officials, including attorney-general William Barr and General Mark Milley, the chairman of the joint chiefs who was wearing army combat fatigues.
The scene sent a signal that he would take a hard stance on the protests, with only five months to go before the presidential election. Supporters and political experts say Mr Trump has returned to his 2016 campaign strategy of being aggressive on crime, while the focus on the protests has provided respite from the criticism of his handling of coronavirus.
Earlier on Monday he told governors that they were “weak” and must “dominate” the streets. The rhetoric came days after he tweeted language previously used by segregationists — “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” — and threatened to unleash “vicious dogs” on protesters the morning after taking refuge in an underground bunker.
“He’s trying to increasingly push the pandemic to the lower half of the newspaper front page,” said David Gergen, a Harvard professor and former adviser to four presidents, including Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.
While Mr Trump called himself an “ally of all peaceful protesters” on Monday, his history undermines that claim. In 1990, he told Playboy magazine that he applauded how the Communist party had cracked down on the students in Tiananmen Square in 1989, saying it showed “the power of strength” while the US was seen as weak.
On Monday, he told the governors that Minnesota, where Floyd died, was the “laughing stock of the world” due to the protests.
Jason Miller, a former top communications strategist for Mr Trump, said there were some parallels with the 2016 race. He said it was important to remember that the president “was hired to get things done and not be the consoler-in-chief or hand-holder-in-chief” and that Republicans wanted him to take a tough stance on crime.
But some critics say the strategy will fail. John Weaver, a Republican strategist, compared the way the president has blamed Antifa — a diffuse leftist anti-fascist movement — for the violent protests to his scaremongering about “caravans” of immigrants ahead of the 2018 elections.
“In 2016 Trump was a theory, in a good economy, running against a woman who had been vilified by a professional attack machine for 25 years,” said Mr Weaver. “Today . . . Trump and Trumpism is a fact. He will be crushed in November.”
Rick Tyler, former spokesman for Republican senator Ted Cruz, said the president had used Floyd’s death to create a partisan wedge. “Instead of calling for calm and addressing the racism in policing, he chose to pour gasoline on the raging fires of injustice by sending out racist tweets. I have one question for Americans: had enough?”
Recent polls show Mr Trump is trailing Joe Biden nationally and in most key swing states © AP
Recent polls show Mr Trump is trailing Joe Biden nationally and in most key swing states. But the president seems to be gambling that his approach will spark enough enthusiasm among his base to win.
Laura and Gary Schisler, two Trump supporters from Pittsburgh, said they detected no sign of the president being abandoned by his fans.
Ms Schisler said his message on law and order resonated with her female friends who worried about the protests reaching the suburbs. She said most would welcome the military involvement because people were tired of the chaos. Her husband, a former Air Force pilot, said Trump retained strong support but added there was a danger it could backfire.
“I don’t think anyone can win from that situation,” he said. “If people see thousands of army men and women in full combat gear, those old enough to remember the Vietnam protests will think very poorly of that situation.”
Critics also say Mr Trump will lose any gains he had made with black voters. But Tim Murtaugh, the presidential campaign spokesman, dismissed that idea. He said the justice department had “swiftly launched” a probe into Floyd’s death and Mr Trump had a “clear record of achievement” when it came to black voters, including record low unemployment before the virus and securing criminal justice reform.
Mr Gergen said Mr Trump was trying to link the antifa movement — which experts say is a fraction of the protests — to Democratic “radical liberals” in the minds of voters. While Mr Trump hopes his law and order strategy will help as it helped Nixon win in 1968, Mr Gergen says the president has only a “slim” chance of winning re-election.
He said voters were tired of the disarray and the growing feeling that “things are spinning out of control”. He added that sending in troops would shift the odds even more against the president in November.
“If you have 140,000 dead and 40m unemployed [because of coronavirus] and blood in the streets, I don’t see how you win,” he said. “You just ask the old Reagan question, ‘are you better off than you were four years ago?’”
Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi