George Floyd was not the first unarmed Black person to die at the hands, so to speak, of a police officer. We already know he won’t be the last (say his name: Jamel Floyd). The death of George Floyd, along with similarly unjust killings that recently took the lives of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, sparked protests that rightly focused the attention of our country and the world on systemic racism, white supremacy, and police violence in America.
White supremacy and racial oppression—totally separate from the response of any elected official or police force to those engaged in peaceful protest—stand as stains on America’s record in the eyes of the world. However, the president of the United States could have responded this past week in ways that helped us move closer to justice, and in ways that strengthened our democracy. He did the opposite. The world is taking note.
Germany’s Der Spiegel is that country’s most influential weekly news publication. It has the highest circulation numbers of any news weekly in Europe. Please take a look at its most recent cover. The description of Trump translates most directly as “Fire Devil: A President Sets His Country on Fire.”
Criticism of Trump as a leader is one thing, but we are seeing that his (lack of) leadership is causing direct harm to America’s international standing. A CNN article ran with the following headline: “Is the US still the world’s moral leader? Not after what Trump just did this week.” The article quotes Pedro Sánchez, the prime minister of Spain, saying “I stand in solidarity with the demonstrations that are happening in the United States. Because obviously we are all very concerned about the authoritarian debate and those authoritarian ways that we are seeing as a response to some demonstrations.”
Among our democratic allies, Sánchez was far from alone.
Josep Borrell, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, told reporters Tuesday that the American authorities should not be “using their capacities in the way,” calling it “an abuse of power” that “has to be denounced.”
A day earlier, the E.U. said that it hopes “all the issues” will be “settled swiftly and in full respect for the rule of law and human rights” — language usually reserved for conflict hot spots such as Yemen, Syria and Ukraine.
Donald Trump’s America now fits that description.
Then there were the officially authoritarian governments who are delighting in their ability to use Trump’s fascist actions as a cudgel to defend their own abuses. Even China—which has placed two million of its own citizens, mostly Uighur Muslims, into concentration camps—has gotten into the act.
When the Trump administration offered criticism of China’s crackdown in late May on Hong Kong’s autonomy and the freedoms it guarantees for Hongkongers, the response from the Beijing government was exactly what you’d expect. This tweet, from the editor of the Chinese Communist Party-controlled Global Times, referenced Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
On the recent mistreatment of journalists—whose freedom is guaranteed by the very first Amendment to the Constitution—during the protests, the U.S. faced criticism not only from Germany and Australia, but also the government of Turkey. In case you didn’t know, there are 47 journalists in Turkish prisons, and 25 have been killed. But that government now can call out Trump’s America on protecting the media.
And then there’s Russia—whom, for some unknowable reason, Trump can’t seem to stand up to no matter what.
The Kremlin-backed leader of Chechnya, sanctioned by the United States as a violent brute responsible for torture and extrajudicial killings, said this week that he was “horrified” by the brutality of the American police.
Russia’s foreign ministry, for its part, lamented “a real tragedy, an American tragedy” and demanded that Washington protect the rights of its own citizens instead of constantly finding fault in Russia.
“By taking measures to prevent looting and other illegal actions, authorities should not violate the rights of Americans to peaceful protest,” Maria Zakharova, the foreign ministry’s spokeswoman, said on Thursday. Speaking earlier on a TV talk show, Ms. Zakharova said that because of the chaos, the United States “simply cannot have any questions for others in the coming years.”
American diplomats are deeply concerned that what’s going on in the streets of the United States will fundamentally weaken their ability to call out abuses in other countries and effectively encourage greater degrees of liberty and equality. A former Obama administration official, Rob Berschinski, stated “there is no doubt that the world is watching what’s going on in the United States, and both our allies and repressive governments around the world are noting that a government that ostensibly supports freedom of speech and assembly and peaceful protests and a free media isn’t acting like it at the moment.” He also said “There is no doubt that that is going to undercut the work of our diplomats.”
Brett Bruen, who served as director of global engagement on President Obama’s National Security Council, offered this sobering assessment: “If Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo were deeply damaging, this situation is downright devastating for American diplomacy.”
Nancy McEldowney, former U.S. ambassador to Bulgaria, placed the blame for this development exactly where it belongs:
Trump’s rhetoric and his inept and extreme response has made things much more difficult for American diplomats around the world. In the past, the United States was perceived as the standard bearer for human rights, the beacon of light, calling for restraint, calling for reasonable compromise. And instead, we are now the subject of, at best, great anxiety, and at worst, derision and scorn.
Trump has significantly harmed the global standing of our country throughout his presidency, separate from when he ordered violence against peaceful protestors. That wasn’t even the only harmful thing he has done in the past couple of weeks. His pathetic, inept response to the coronavirus opened the door for China, Russia, North Korea, Iran, and even ISIS—which the impeached president falsely claimed he had destroyed “100%”—to take dangerous, aggressive actions. According to the New York Times, each of them has been “testing the limits and seeing what gains they can make with minimal pushback.”
Furthermore, Trump has recently made a series of decisions that have shocked and dismayed our European allies. He abruptly withdrew from the World Health Organization (WHO) over its handling of the coronavirus. He invited Russia to attend the upcoming meeting of the G7—which had kicked Moscow out after it invaded and annexed Crimea in 2014, an act of aggression that still stands. And, in another move Putin loves, Trump reduced the number of American military personnel stationed in Germany by more than 25%. German Chancellor Angela Merkel in particular has had just about enough of President Bunker Boy:
In Europe, after years of snubs and American unilateralism, America’s traditional allies have stopped looking to [Trump] for leadership, no longer trust that this president will offer them much, and are turning their backs on him.
That was evidenced most obviously this week by the decision of the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, not to attend the Group of 7 meeting Mr. Trump wanted so badly in Washington this month to show that the virus was behind him and the world was returning to normal. […]
As Mr. Trump threatens to call in the military against his own citizens, he has become a president that some of America’s closest allies prefer to keep at arms’ length, unsure of what he will do next and unwilling to be dragged into his campaign for re-election.
Regarding—heaven forbid—Trump’s reelection, European leaders are likely looking at presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden and hoping they, not to mention the U.S. itself, can simply avoid bursting into a ball of flames until January 20, 2021. This past week, Biden showed how a president should respond to police abuse of African Americans, and gave the most important speech of the campaign and, perhaps, his political career thus far.
I call on Congress to act this month on measures that would be a first step in this direction. Starting with real police reform. Congressman Jeffries has a bill to outlaw choke holds. Congress should put it on President Trump’s desk in the next few days.
There are other measures: to stop transferring weapons of war to police forces, to improve oversight and accountability, to create a model use of force standard — that also should be made law this month. […]
Looking ahead, in the first 100 days of my presidency, I have committed to creating a national police oversight commission. I’ve long believed we need real community policing. And we need each and every police department in the country to undertake a comprehensive review of their hiring, their training, and their de-escalation practices. And the federal government should give them the tools and resources they need to implement reforms.
Biden can contrast his program with the actions of his opponent, who has systematically dismantled the federal reforms, including vitally necessary consent decrees, implemented by the Obama-Biden administration after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, where the Black Lives Matter movement began. These decrees are “court-monitored agreements between local police departments and federal or state officials that result in mandatory changes and benchmarks for departments that have violated citizens’ constitutional rights.”
Likewise, on Monday, House and Senate Democrats introduced a reform package of their own, the Justice in Policing Act of 2020. Among many other elements, the legislation includes bans on chokeholds and on no-knock warrants of the kind that led to the killing of Breonna Taylor, and authorizes a national registry to track abuses by police officers—thus preventing them from moving from one jurisdiction to another after being fired or otherwise disciplined. The Congressional Black Caucus, the House Judiciary Committee, along with Senators Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey, came together to write the bill. Republican backing for the measure does not appear to be in the offing. I’m sure you didn’t see that one coming.
Obama has also spoken out in the last few days about the need for more reform, as well as the need for activists and their supporters to engage directly with the political process: “aspirations have to be translated into specific laws and institutional practices—and in a democracy, that only happens when we elect government officials who are responsive to our demands.” You can be sure that the 44th president will be in the ear of a President Biden on this matter.
Since The Man Who Lost The Popular Vote began occupying the Oval Office, the image of the United States around the world has taken a hit. In recent days, however, the damage Trump has caused on that front reached a new level. Given his history of racist rhetoric—and his despicable statements specifically about the Black Lives Matter movement that go back years—can anyone really be surprised at how he has acted? We may not be surprised, but we are outraged nonetheless. So are people all over this planet.
The only way to restore our image in the world to something approaching where it was under President Obama—not to mention give ourselves a chance to transform America into a better, more just country—would be to replace Trump with the man Obama himself selected to be his number two. Electing Joe Biden president, retaking the Senate, and electing progressives to statehouses and local offices across the land to create change is the only way to save America. Between now and November, that’s one of the most important things to which real patriots should be devoting themselves.
Ian Reifowitz is the author of The Tribalization of Politics: How Rush Limbaugh’s Race-Baiting Rhetoric on the Obama Presidency Paved the Way for Trump (Foreword by Markos Moulitsas)
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