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Trump: “The concept of chokehold sounds so innocent, so perfect”

Trump’s new Fox interview shows why he’s so terribly unsuited to our moment.

Trump at a Fox News town hall in March.
Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

On Friday, Fox News released an interview with President Trump by journalist Harris Faulkner. The interview was a disaster, a case study in why Donald Trump is not and cannot be the person to handle this moment in time.

When asked about police use of chokeholds on suspects like George Floyd, who was killed after a Minneapolis officer pinned him by the neck with his knee for nearly nine minutes, Trump initially told Faulkner, “I don’t like chokeholds,” even saying that “generally speaking, they should be ended.” But he contradicted that pretty quickly, saying when you’ve got someone who is “a real bad person ... what are you gonna do now — let go?”

He even went further, saying that “the concept of chokehold sounds so innocent, so perfect,” if a lone police officer is attempting to detain someone.

His position, as far as I can tell, seems to be that maybe sometimes individual officers need to use chokeholds, but the more police there are, the less likely it is they’ll need to use one:

TRUMP: I think the concept of chokehold sounds so innocent, so perfect. And then you realize, if it’s a one-on-one. But if it’s two-on-one, that’s a little bit a different story. Depending on the toughness and strength — you know, we’re talking about toughness and strength. There’s a physical thing here too.

FAULKNER: If it’s a one-on-one for the [officer’s] life ...

TRUMP: And that does happen, that does happen. You have to be careful.

The most relevant part here isn’t the president’s views on the details of self-defense tactics, but rather the lack of empathy in the way he talks about the issue. The only world in which police using chokeholds could sound “innocent” or “perfect” is a world in which you don’t think about what happens to people when they’re literally being choked — or one where you assume that it won’t happen to people like you.

A recent LA Times investigation found that 103 people were “seriously injured” by police using “carotid neck restraints” in California between 2016 and 2018. Black people, who make up 6.5 percent of the state’s population, were 23 percent of those injured in such holds.

Trump’s thinking seems so deeply shaped by his sense of generalized police innocence, his unwillingness to really process the facts on racial discrimination in police use of force, that he’s capable of saying out loud that chokeholds sound “innocent.”

Later in the interview, Trump claims that he’s done more for African Americans than “any other president.” Abraham Lincoln is, of course, the obvious counterexample — but Trump said he’s going to “take a pass” on him. It’s remarkable to see how he replies to Faulkner, a black woman, responding to that by saying “we are free” — and to see Trump basically shrug off the point, to say that “the end result” of Lincoln’s presidency is “always questionable”:

Bear in mind that this is a president who recently threatened to veto an annual defense spending bill if it included an amendment that would rename military bases named after Confederate generals. It is also the same president under whose watch, less than two weeks ago, peaceful protesters in Washington, DC, were tear-gassed so he could attend a photo op. A recent NPR poll found that 86 percent of black voters believe Trump has “mostly increased racial tensions” during the George Floyd protests and that 88 percent were planning to vote for presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden in November.

Under these circumstances, the president claiming to be the “best” president for black voters — to be unwilling to admit that the man who ended slavery in the US did more for African Americans — is absolutely astonishing.

There’s moment after moment like this in the Faulkner interview.

Trump denies that he got the phrase “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” from a segregationist police chief — crediting it instead to a different racist police chief who once unleashed dogs on black student demonstrators. He claims that he can console hurt Americans right now through “toughness,” because “by being soft and weak, you end up not being compassionate.” He says that holding his first campaign rally of the summer on Juneteenth — the holiday commemorating the end of slavery — is not offensive attention-hogging, but rather “a celebration.”

After a certain point, writing about Trump feels redundant. The president is so violently self-absorbed, so committed to fanning flames of racial hatred for political gain, and so manifestly unfit for his serious responsibilities that pointing it out over and over again starts to feel pointless.

But at this moment in our history — a pandemic combined with a massive uprising in favor of racial equality — it feels especially important to state the baseline reality: The most important person in America’s political system is incapable of rising to the moment and being the person the country needs. Any serious analysis of our current state of affairs needs to take that as its starting point — as this interview, like many before it, shows.