I admit to often being flummoxed by the direction in which the hosts of “Fox & Friends” take their show. As the flagship morning show of the Fox News network and, for the past several years, a central conduit of information to the president of the United States, the show’s focus and content holds a significance that few others do. That the hosts so often use that position to amplify President Trump’s positions instead of holding his power to account is one thing; that they often do so by chasing odd or debunked propositions is another thing entirely.
It is nonetheless the case that the show often offers insight, even if indirectly. That happened Friday, with a question host Brian Kilmeade posed to Trump himself during a lengthy telephone interview.
The hosts had raised the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia. Arbery was out jogging in February when he was shot and killed. A father and son, Gregory and Travis McMichael, were charged in the death Thursday. According to a police report, Gregory McMichael told authorities he believed Arbery resembled a suspect in local break-ins. He called his son, according to statements in the report, grabbed firearms, got into a truck and followed Arbery, calling out to him to stop and ultimately pulling up next to him. After a brief exchange, the report says, Arbery was shot.
Arbery is black. Gregory and Travis McMichael are white.
Trump said during the interview that he had seen what appeared to be video of the shooting, which had circulated online.
“It’s very disturbing,” Trump said. “I looked at a picture, that young man who was in a tuxedo … and I will say that that looks like a really good young guy. And it looks very, it’s a very disturbing situation to me.”
He assured the hosts that the governor of Georgia — his political ally Gov. Brian Kemp (R) — was going to look at the case. The McMichaels were arrested Thursday.
Then host Brian Kilmeade asked a follow-up question.
“In the past, when there’s been a black-white shooting, a lot of times things get — spiral out of control,” Kilmeade asked. “What can you do to make sure justice is done and this doesn’t end up in a racial situation?”
There are a number of apparent assumptions built into Kilmeade’s question.
The first and most obvious is his presentation of the known facts as having the potential to “end up in a racial situation” — as though there was necessarily no racial factor already present in Arbery’s killing. Kilmeade’s apparent default position is that race played no role in the shooting death of a jogger who was mistaken by two white men for a burglar. (It has since emerged that there were no burglaries in the neighborhood in the preceding month.) That, at the very least, there was no reason for anyone to think that there might have been a racial component to the shooting. That two men feeling empowered to act as armed vigilantes in confronting a black man in southern Georgia does not, in and of itself, constitute a “racial situation.”
That overlaps with the assumptions built into the first part of Kilmeade’s question. He believes that “black-white shootings” — an odd description of a situation in which a black man was allegedly shot to death by a white man — often “spiral out of control.” He’s referring, of course, to protests in recent years that have followed the killing of black men, often by white police officers.
Kilmeade appears to have unwittingly offered a view of such incidents which is probably not uncommon. In such presentations, the killings themselves are framed as an accident, a tragedy, a lamentable escalation. The outcry over the killing? Potential slippery slopes for dangerous racial politicization.
Trump’s political ascent overlapped with the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, a movement powered in part by several high-profile killings of black men by police. As a private citizen, he was critical of the movement and, as a candidate, often leveraged the underlying sentiment that powered opposition to the movement.
While the advent of the movement in 2014 overlapped with a shift among Democrats to a different understanding of the role race plays in society, Republican views of race issues barely budged. In July 2016, Monmouth University asked Americans whether they thought that Black Lives Matter had brought attention to real racial disparities or had exacerbated racial tensions in the country. Most Americans said that the protests had brought attention to real issues. Nearly three-quarters of Republicans said that the group had made racial issues in the United States worse.
Within Trump’s base, discrimination wasn’t seen as a challenge specific to nonwhite Americans. Polling from Pew Research Center released last March indicated that white Republicans saw black, Hispanic and white Americans as similarly subject to discrimination. Trump supporters were the group most likely to say that whites face a lot of discrimination, according to a 2016 YouGov poll. A 2016 Quinnipiac poll found that no group was more concerned about “reverse racism” targeting white Americans than Trump voters. The extent to which someone felt that whites were “losing” relative to nonwhites was a better predictor of support for Trump in 2016 than economically difficulty.
They’re going to riot in Ferguson no matter what.
We get hints of Trump’s own views on incidents like those that spurred the Black Lives Matter movement from what he’s said and done. During violent protests in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014, Trump offered no sympathy to the concerns of the protesters. His administration declined to press federal charges against New York police officers who killed Eric Garner on Staten Island that same year. In 2016, he called Black Lives Matter a “threat” and blamed the group for “igniting” violence against police officers.
One of the more suggestive incidents came about a year before his election as president. On Nov. 22, 2015, Trump retweeted a graphic from an invented organization called the “Crime Statistics Bureau.” It claimed that 81 percent of whites who were killed in the U.S. were slain by blacks, one of several inaccurate statistics paired with an image of a black man holding a firearm. (The actual figure the preceding year was 15 percent.) He quickly deleted the image.
Trump’s response to Kilmeade’s question about avoiding “a racial situation” was far more judicious.
“Well, justice getting done is the thing that solves that problem,” Trump said. This is largely true, of course, but it’s hard to reconcile with Trump’s rejection of other efforts to levy justice, like the exoneration of the Central Park Five.
To Kilmeade, Trump again suggested that Georgia’s governor would handle the situation well — and then pointed out that the situation still had unknowns.
“You know, it could be something that we didn’t see on tape,” the president added. “That could be a lot of, you know, if you saw things went off tape and then back on tape. But it was a troubling — I mean, anybody that watched it, certainly, a disturbing or troubling video, no question about that.”
Trump did not address the question of any role race might have played, nor did he contest Kilmeade’s framing.