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As legend has it, Emperor Nero fiddled while his city burned during the Great Fire of Rome.
The story is most likely apocryphal, but it resonates today because U.S. President Donald Trump has been busy tweeting while much of his nation burns amid the worst outbreak of social unrest in decades.
At a time when a president would traditionally be expected to offer calming words and dial down the rhetoric in hopes of healing a bitterly fractured nation, Mr. Trump has fanned the flames of violence by issuing incendiary tweets and, on Monday, threatening to deploy the military to states if they do not stamp out protests.
The commander-in-chief is now being mockingly dismissed as the agitator-in-chief for his inflammatory response to widespread protests over the killing in Minneapolis of George Floyd, a black man who died, handcuffed and begging for air, while a white police officer knelt on his neck for nine minutes.
Mr. Trump has called the protesters "thugs" and threatened to have them shot. "When the looting starts, the shooting starts," he tweeted, parroting a former Miami police chief whose words spurred race riots in the late 1960s.
The next day, the president tweeted that if protesters breached the White House’s fence, they would "have been greeted with the most vicious dogs, and most ominous weapons, I have ever seen."
On Monday, he portrayed himself as the law-and-order president and warned the nation’s governors — "Most of you are weak" — he would deploy the military. Later, police under federal command dispersed peaceful demonstrators with tear gas so he could walk to a nearby church and pose for a photo-op while clutching a Bible.
"You have to dominate," the president scolded governors during part of his call. "If you don’t dominate, you’re wasting your time — they’re going to run over you, you’re going to look like a bunch of jerks."
Indeed, authorities cannot sit on their hands and allow cities to burn. But arresting looters and arsonists is a far cry from the unprecedented threat of unleashing the American military on American soil to crack down on American citizens, the vast majority of whom are exercising their democratic right to engage in peaceful protest.
Trump has tried to blame violence that has marred some protests on antifa — short for anti-fascists — an ideology held by disparate groups and individuals, some of whom use extreme tactics. It’s possible some such extremists may be involved. But it is ludicrous to suggest a small number of fringe radicals could exert widespread control over thousands of demonstrators at protests that have sprung up in dozens of cities from coast to coast and sparked sympathy uprisings in Canadian and European cities.
It is long past time for the president to do what elected representatives are expected to do in times of crisis — attempt to heal a nation that is crying out for leadership at a time when long-simmering anger over police treatment of African-Americans is boiling over, leaving streets in chaos and buildings and vehicles in flames.
Mr. Trump must also stop using his overworked thumbs to pour fuel on the flames of anger. When he warned the governors to dominate or risk "looking like a bunch of jerks", he would do well to remember that, in trying to dominate his people, Nero ended up as one of history’s most infamous jerks.
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