Late yesterday afternoon, a president who couldn’t spell “Constitution” if you spotted him the “onsti” and the “ution” appears to have gestured toward inciting a second civil war. I believe it is safe to say that Donald Trump has grown into his office at long last, much the way a tumor will grow in the lung after years of breathing factory smoke. The authoritarian is fully revealed, although he continued to dance along the line rather than cross it entirely.
And, of course, it was all for television. Protesters in Lafayette Square in Washington D.C., who were there to demonstrate against the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last week were doused with tear gas, deafened with flash-bang grenades, peppered with rubber bullets and run off by horse-mounted police and U.S. soldiers so Trump could stand before the cameras in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church with a borrowed bible in hand and send a Bat-Signal to his evangelical base.
“I am the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington and was not given even a courtesy call that they would be clearing [the area] with tear gas so they could use one of our churches as a prop,” the Right Rev. Mariann Budde told The Washington Post after that farce unfolded. “Everything he has said and done is to inflame violence. We need moral leadership, and he’s done everything to divide us.”
There was plenty of inflaming, as the police and soldier violence unfolded on live television. Before his biblical passage to the church, Trump spoke from the Rose Garden with the screams and flash-bang booms from the park serving as his dramatic soundtrack. Because he is Trump, his proclamation was delivered with equal parts farce and menace.
The farce, as usual, came first. “I am immobilizing all federal resources, civilian and military to stop the rioting and looting, to end the destruction and arson, and to protect the rights of law-abiding Americans,” he intoned. Immobilizing all resources? What?
However, the menace came tacked on at the end of that sentence: “… to protect the rights of law-abiding citizens, including your Second Amendment rights.” First of all, the protesters assembled in Lafayette Square were all law-abiding citizens, as the First Amendment clearly delineates “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” They were peaceably assembled until they started getting shot at and stomped, and then they were peaceably running for their lives.
More troubling, however, was Trump’s seeming non sequitur about protecting “your Second Amendment rights.” What on Earth do protests against rampant police violence have to do with gun ownership?
Short answer: Nothing. That wasn’t a non sequitur. It was a dog whistle to a subset of the population particularly attuned to hear it. The president of the United States appeared to be asking for armed volunteers last night to augment the forces already arrayed against the protests. He didn’t come right out and say it, of course, but the “Second Amendment people” he was speaking to heard him full well.
As much as anything else the show of force in Washington D.C. last night was a menacing bit of sleight-of-hand on Trump’s part. He threatened to invoke the Insurrection Act of 1807, which allows a president to bypass the Posse Comitatus Act, the law that forbids the use of federal troops against the citizenry.
Invoking the Insurrection Act would allow Trump to send troops to the various states, but only if the governors of those states give him permission to do so. Immediately after the scene at Lafayette Park, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker told Trump in no uncertain terms to get stuffed, and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo joined his colleague with a polite, “No thank you” on CNN.
The District of Columbia is not a state, however, and Lafayette Park is federal land. Had Trump decided to treat the park as if it were Omaha Beach on D-Day, he would still have been acting within the confines of the law, but he cannot recreate that vicious scene outside of the District without the permission of the governors.
Unless, of course, he declares martial law.
“If a city or state refuses to take the actions that are necessary to defend the life and property of their residents, then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them,” Trump proclaimed from the Rose Garden. “I am your president of law and order.” This was a threat to those governors: Give me that permission if I ask for it, or else.
Despite the terrifying nature of this dangerous presidential power grab, there was an element to it all that seemed farcical — perhaps making his power grab all the more dangerous, since some won’t take it seriously.
Earlier that same day, Trump had berated the governors for being “weak” on a frantic conference call. This, from the man who on Friday night became the first U.S. president to hide from his own citizens in the White House bunker.
I was convinced as it all unfolded that the whole show on Monday evening happened because the story of Trump’s bunker trip broke in the press, and the humiliation of it could not be endured.
My suspicion was confirmed by CNN’s Anderson Cooper, who reported, “Sources are telling my colleague Kevin Liptak that, in part, the reason the president made this trip outside the gates of the White House — a really rare trip, where you do not often see the president walk out of the front door of the White House, walk across Lafayette Square, to St. John’s — was driven, in part, that he was upset by coverage of the fact that he had been rushed to the underground bunker on Friday night during the protests that you saw breaking out here, in front of the White House.”
Due in no small part to Trump’s bombastic response to the ongoing protests, the night was another harsh one for many across a wide swath of the nation, as the anti-Black violence of the police persisted unabated. Vast numbers of protesters were attacked by law enforcement and arrested once again.
It is 1918 and 1929 simultaneously here in the U.S. as Congressional Republicans, to the shock and awe of none, remained largely silent in the face of Monday night’s escapade, with just a few exceptions. “We long ago lost sight of normal, but this was a singularly immoral act,”Brendan Buck, once the top aide to former Speaker Paul Ryan, told Politico. “The president used force against American citizens, not to protect property, but to soothe his own insecurities.”
“I’ve never been more ashamed,” a senior White House aide told Axios after witnessing lawful protesters get gassed for a photo-op. “I’m really honestly disgusted. I’m sick to my stomach. And they’re all celebrating it. They’re very, very proud of themselves.”
“This is a fulcrum moment for the nation,” I wrote only yesterday morning, “one that could tilt either way. Either we secure a measure of justice through sustained effort, or the authoritarian pushback that has already begun will hurl us down into a darkness as yet uncomprehended should we weaken or stagger.”
The authoritarian pushback is now on full display, and emanating from the pinnacle of federal government power. Trump has declared himself the very embodiment of the law, criminalized lawful dissent, and has in so many words called in armed reinforcements from within the fetid ranks of his devoted base. The nation stands upon the brink of a final calamity too dreadful to contemplate.
The only remedy in the face of such terrifying power abuse is to confront it with a greater power, the power of the people. Those who are bravely protesting, taking on the forces of racism and fascism, are that greater power.