3 GOP Insiders on the Protests and Trump’s Perilous Moment

Everyone agrees this was not a great moment for the president. Photo: Patrick Semansky/AP/Shutterstock

President Trump was already facing middling marks from Americans over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Then, a police officer knelt on George Floyd’s neck, and the national conversation shifted — but hardly in Trump’s favor. As the president faces down duel crises, neither of which he has a handle on, he’s looking more vulnerable than ever to defeat in November. Intelligencer talked to three Republican insiders about their view of the crisis in the country — and their party.

An aide on Capitol Hill

What did you make of the video?
It was fucking appalling. All four of those cops should be behind bars for a long time.

Has it changed your political thinking at all?
I’m more of a tactics guy. My first thought is, We have a virus going around that absolutely decimates people’s respiratory systems. And it turns out George Floyd had COVID — and you’d think police forces would think, Don’t crouch on people’s necks, dumbasses, because they are not able to take in air like they normally do. Techniques that we use because the same level of force that was appropriate before the virus is not appropriate anymore.

What do you think of the protests?
The peaceful ones are fine. People have a right to be angry; I have a right to be angry. But the protests would be well served to identify clearly the institutions that need reforming: what reforms need to happen, what is expected of American voters, and how they should think about these issues other than, You’ve got it good because you’re a certain race, and you’ve got it bad because you’re a certain race. The protests have a noble purpose, but they don’t have identifiable deliverables other than saying vague things like “Stop Police Brutality” or “Black Lives Matter,” which is perfectly effective and noncontroversial, but what happens when you get past “Black Lives Matter” — then what? What do protesters want from the country? They want justice, but where do they want justice applied? The group that goes around jamming a finger in people’s faces and saying, “You’ve got it good because you’re white,” that’s fingers on chalkboard for people living in poverty in Appalachia, in coal towns, someone working the overnight shift at a Circle K in Pennsylvania — for them, there is nothing more privileged than being able to take a day off work to protest and hoot and holler at the police.

What do you think of Trump’s reaction?
The Lafayette Square thing was a fucking mistake. It was no gain, no reward, and all downside. It was a gigantic miscalculation, and I think the White House knows it and they know they fucked up.

A GOP strategist

What do you think of Trump’s response?
The video was awful. It was very clear-cut. He handled it exactly as you would expect him to handle it. He hasn’t surprised anyone, and if he surprised you, you haven’t been paying attention. He has been — let’s put it mildly — less than helpful.

What about what happened in Lafayette Square?
I want to approach it in a little more cynical way. The entire thing was not thought out in any way, shape, or form. There is no reason why Trump couldn’t have waited until 7:15, and it’s also clear when he got over there that he had no idea what to do. Mike Pence wasn’t there; there was no prayer. It was ham-handed, and it was impulsive.

What do you think the electoral consequences will be?
It’s not 1968. Nixon was not an incumbent — it was a Democratic administration, and you had years of a war that grated on the American people. So 1968 was a culmination of years of unrest and generational strife. This has been sudden, really out of nowhere — pandemic, protests — it isn’t as much something that has been building in the country. But I think the path is continuing where Biden is solidifying his position and Trump is dropping. That was the case two weeks ago. This is an accelerant, not necessarily a trajectory changer.

Do you think this will change the Republican Party long term?
It has absolutely shifted the Overton window on Black Lives Matter. I remember in 2015 when Hillary Clinton said “All Lives Matter,” and now the standard Republican talking point is to say “Black Lives Matter.”

A Trump administration official

How do people in the administration feel?
People are pissed off; they are rip-shit against the riots. I don’t think there are any Americans against peaceful assembly. Remember the pussy-hat protests, a million people on the Mall — nobody gave a shit. Walk into a Louis Vuitton and take a purse off the wall, all of a sudden you think you’re a George Floyd social-justice warrior. How do these people a year later look at the lamp in their living room that they stole from Target and live with themselves?

How has Trump handled it, do you think?
I think the president has handled it as well as any president ever could. I think the tweets are helpful. I think [“when the looting starts, the shooting starts”] is a clear warning that the president supports law and order and that it is unacceptable that a small minority of our society has decided it’s okay to walk into a luxury-goods store, taking things off shelves and using George Floyd’s death as an excuse to do so.

*This article appears in the June 8, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

3 GOP Insiders on the Protests and Trump’s Perilous Moment