With newly placed armor swaddling the White House and armored police and federal agents arrayed throughout Washington, D.C., Trump’s fearful agitation has taken on a macrocosm-microcosm hue that Shakespeare would recognize on sight: Even as he fortifies his fortress, this president is growing ever more afraid, his dread swelling in timorous harmony with the undiminishing size of the protests before him. King Lear and Julius Caesar are instructive.
The history of White House security is both rich and bleak in equal measure. When Abraham Lincoln assumed the office in 1861, one of the first things that struck him was the mob scene inside his new home office. He, along with his aides, cabinet members and military commanders, were required to elbow their way through hundreds of office-seekers who daily crowded into the West Wing seeking federal employment.
Even as the fledgling nation trembled on the precipice of violent disunion, Lincoln refused to forbid the public their access to “the People’s House.” After the onset of the Civil War — and a number of failed assassination attempts, including one that saw a sniper in the woods blow Lincoln’s top hat off his head as he rode to the Old Soldier’s Home outside the city — security at the White House was tightened.
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Lincoln’s assassination in 1865 ended for all time open public access to the building, and the assassination of John F. Kennedy a century later inspired far more severe security measures to be taken inside and outside the facility. Four days after students were murdered by the National Guard at Kent State, a massive protest descended upon Washington, D.C., and the Nixon White House was ringed with D.C. Transit buses, though they eventually went back to work ferrying passengers.
One day after Timothy McVeigh murdered 168 men, women and children with a bomb at the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, the length of Pennsylvania Avenue crossing in front of the White House was closed to vehicular traffic. After September 11, that change was made permanent, and E Street was likewise closed from the South Portico to the Ellipse. Other, more subtle security measures were enacted by the Secret Service, but a tourist (or a protester) still enjoyed an unobstructed view of the presidential mansion.
“Every day, more fences go up and more concrete barriers are put in place as the security perimeter expands farther and farther,” The New York Times reported on Friday. “The universally recognized symbol of American democracy increasingly looks like a fortress under siege in the heart of the nation’s capital, a Washington version of the Green Zone that sheltered American and Iraqi officials in Baghdad during the worst of the war.”
Even in the immediate wake of September 11, when fears of terrorist attacks were the most acute, the White House was protected without hiding it from the people. Today, the people are the perceived threat, and the White House has been transformed into a symbol of the dystopia we endure under this feckless, frightened president. Donald Trump is afraid of all of us, and his house now advertises that fear for the whole wide world to see.
After more than three years of bombast, bluster and unreconstructed bullshit from Mr. Trump, his true nature is clearer than ever. The police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, combined with Trump’s awe-inspiring failures in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, have galvanized an eruption of activism. Trump’s house is now one big bunker with a single purpose: to shield him from the people who have had enough, who gather peacefully yet in strength to say with one clarion voice, “No more.”
Blame for Trump’s ruined estate can be laid at the feet of one person: Trump. Confronted by a population in open revolt, he made grand threats about unleashing the military upon the people. Upon discovering he was prohibited by law from rolling tanks on Everytown USA at a whim, he chose to enact a bit of violent political theater in Washington, D.C., a city he could flood with troops because it does not reside within an actual state.
Lafayette Park across from the White House, where many of the protests were centered, is federal land, so Trump needed no special permission to brutalize peaceful protesters on his way to that Bible-fapping photo op in front of St. John’s Church. All he needed was the presence of doormat lickspittles like Attorney General William Barr and Defense Secretary Mark Esper to carry out his filthy authoritarian orders. The city suddenly swarmed with soldiers and federal gendarmes, some without badge or insignia, a faceless fist wrapped in a burning flag.
It did not work out the way Trump hoped. Rather than retreat before the implied and actual viciousness of federal forces, the protesters in Washington, D.C., and across the country returned day after day in ever-increasing numbers, thundering for change.
Protests against police violence became a global phenomenon, and as they grew ever larger here and abroad, Trump grew ever smaller. When Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser renamed the corner of 16th and H streets in front of the White House “Black Lives Matter Plaza,” and had the street painted with those words in giant block letters, Trump’s humiliation was complete. The decision on Sunday to withdraw the soldiers from Washington was the white-flag tail of a fleeing rabbit.
Today, Trump is a turtle cowering within a steel shell. He remains the president, despite the claims of some pundits, and retains all the monstrous powers of that office, but is a laughingstock at home and abroad.
The protests continue. Trump can still see the people as they march in unity, but only if he peers through the bars of the cage he has constructed for himself.