As I write this from lower Manhattan, helicopters hover overhead as they have for the last several nights, media and police watching from above to see where peaceful protesters are marching and gathering, while looking for possible arson or other vandalism initiated by the few whose anger or opportunism chooses to do harm or just generate chaos. Sometimes this is symbolic—rage expressed by violence. Sadly though, sometimes it’s simple theft and destructiveness that has nothing to do with protest.
The police and ambulance sirens wail through the evening as well, and on Sunday, that noise and the sound of the copters mixed with the thud of a nail gun and the buzz of an electric saw as workmen placed plywood sheets over the windows of the restaurant across the street.
Now we have a curfew, but so far, in this particular neighborhood at least, we have avoided most trouble. By day, hundreds of committed demonstrators with a righteous cause—against police brutality and systemic historic racism—have marched down the street below my windows. At night, no glass has shattered, but one small trash fire was ignited across the street Monday evening, and another at a nearby gas station, both quickly put out by the New York Fire Department. Everyone’s jumpy.
Donald John Trump, these are awful times. Disease and despair are stalking the American people. We are battered by viruses of the body, mind and soul. As president, you must bear responsibility. Yet if Monday, June 1, is any indication, perhaps it would be better for all concerned if you stayed in your bunker underneath the White House and kept your damned mouth shut.
Let me be more polite. Please keep your damned mouth shut. As Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said Sunday, “He's making it worse… We are beyond a tipping point in this country. And his rhetoric only inflames that. And he should just sometimes stop talking.”
For a while, he and some of his advisors seemed to agree, albeit for the wrong reasons—calculating, Philip Rucker at The Washington Post reports, “that he should not speak to the nation because he had nothing new to say and had no tangible policy or action to announce yet, according to a senior administration official. Evidently not feeling an urgent motivation Sunday to try to bring people together, he stayed silent.”
But he couldn’t restrain himself, of course. Early Monday evening Trump delivered one of his dreaded, monotone teleprompter reads from the Rose Garden, threatening martial law and worse. It was a pugnacious burst of sound and fury signifying nothing of hope, comfort or unity. He offered scant sympathy for the family of George Floyd or any other victim of police brutality. It was followed by a five-minute visit to St. John’s Episcopal Church across the street in Lafayette Square. St. John’s was hit by arson Sunday night.
"As he held the scriptures, it's a wonder the Good Book (reportedly not really a Bible but a church hymnal, held upside down) didn't burst into flames in his hands."
He did not go there to say a prayer for George Floyd or to quietly contemplate his own failings (!) or to inspect the extent of the damage. Trump never even went in, but stood outside with a Bible in his hand, all for the cameras. But first, he made sure police and the army had cleared the area of protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets just before his arrival, so as not to interfere with his photo op.
As he held the scriptures, it’s a wonder the Good Book (reportedly not really a Bible but a church hymnal, held upside down) didn’t burst into flames in his hands. "When was the last time you saw the American military against American citizens?” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo asked on CNN. "I was shocked at what they did… calling out the American military for a photo opportunity. It was shameful, really shameful."
Gini Gerbasi, an Episcopalian rector in DC, was at the scene and on Facebook described the attack prior to Trump’s cameo appearance: “I did not see any protestors throw anything until the tear gas and concussion grenades started, and then it was mostly water bottles. I am shaken, not so much by the taste of tear gas and the bit of a cough I still have, but by the fact that that show of force was for a PHOTO OPPORTUNITY… that man turned it into a BATTLE GROUND first, and a cheap political stunt second.”
Monday was a day full of cheap theatrics and senseless actions. Earlier, in a conference call with the nation’s governors, after George Floyd’s death in Minnesota and several days and nights of peaceful demonstrations nationwide, marred by bursts of violence and looting, Trump pounded the table and told the state leaders to crack down, blustering, “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. You have to dominate.”
President Law and Order insulted the governors as “weak” and “fools,” pushed them not to be “too careful,” and to treat rock throwers as if they were shooting a gun. Demand retribution, he declared.
When Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker suggested Trump’s rhetoric was “inflammatory,” saying, “We need to call for calm,” Trump cleverly retorted, “I don’t like your rhetoric much either.”
In other words, nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah, and I’ll meet you outside for a fight after school. Maybe I’ll bring my Bible. If I can ever borrow it from Mike Pence again.
Typically, during that phone call, Trump sounded more like the playground bully or the blowhard at the end of the bar than presidential—all bombast and bull. As I listened, I thought of a comment that my friend, journalist Pete Hamill attributed to his pal, the late Jimmy Breslin. Trump was the kind of guy, Breslin said, who’s "all mouth and couldn't fight his way out of an empty lot."
Always able to make a bad situation worse, Trump issues bellicose threats with nary a word of reconciliation, or barely an attempt to reach out to this nation’s people of color, claiming on Saturday, to the astonishment of every sane person in the country, “MAGA loves the black people.”
To be undeservedly fair, our latest American crisis, the worst since 9/11 and quite probably the Civil War, triggered by the tragic, brutal death of George Floyd at the hands—and crushing knee—of a white Minneapolis policeman, was not directly caused by Trump. It was a defining moment of 400 years of oppression and bigotry, a fatal insult to black men and women that has triggered a week of lawful righteous fury across the United States.
Regrettably, the nights frequently have been marked by violence sometimes spawned by understandable outrage. Too often, though, the windows smashed, police cars burned and stores looted have not been the actions of those with legitimate grievance, but destruction perpetrated by those who would take advantage of despair to rip others off or simply annihilate. Conversely, there have been endless, unimpeded over-the-top police assaults on protesters and members of the press simply trying to do their job. Police have been urged on by the cynical hollow man at the top, the one who told them in 2017, “Please don’t be too nice.”
As I’ve watched the madness of Donald Trump during these past days of nationwide pain, I keep flashing back to a moment in the last TV episode of the late, lamented satire The President Show.
In a fantasy documentary, Trump, played by the brilliant Anthony Atamanuik, has been voted out of office. Years later, he’s tracked down to a West Palm Beach nursing home by a dissolute Steve Bannon. Trying to recreate a little of the old Trump “magic,” Bannon stages a fake rally in which the ex-president taunts a handful of other patients.
“I’m running again because you all love me and you all hate each other,” he rants. “You do! You just need me to remind you!” Within seconds, his insults and accusations have them all at each other’s throats. There’s complete mayhem and Trump and Bannon stand at the podium, braying and triumphant.
Trump is not the overarching reason for all that is happening but he is the predominant, most visible symptom of a nation gone off the rails, the spokesman for hate and division—“You just need me to remind you!”—the punk who sets off the fireworks. He is the biggest agent provocateur of all, an enabler of bad behavior by police and politicians and all those who see government service not as a duty but as a diamond opportunity to burglarize.
Trump’s racist words and deeds have done nothing to heal or reconcile but instead have given license to those who would revile, attack and even kill rather than attempt to understand our history, the original sin of slavery, or a search for viable solutions. As Philip Rucker writes, “Trump’s record of racially insensitive and sometimes outright racist comments over the years has led many Democrats and even some Republicans to conclude that he does not fully comprehend the nation’s history of racism and the corresponding tensions that live on today.”
Is this what we really want? An ignorant president who sows discord with lies, taunts, threats, tantrums, and false accusations—at a time when above all, we need leadership and calls for calm compassion and unity? That Monday evening speech should have been a call for all Americans to come together in a national period of mourning and to have a full and frank discussion of race. He should have announced national teach-ins on the history of whites and people of color in America, about the need for law enforcement reform, events that could begin on TV and online but then, when the pandemic is ended, expand to town hall meetings across the country. He should call for an independent commission, like Lyndon Johnson’s Kerner Commission of 1967, investigating the root causes of unrest and what needs to be done to balance economic inequality and to end racism. It should include an exploration of reparations.
But of course that didn’t happen. Of course. He’s a scared manchild who always lashes out, who cannot comprehend that virtually everything he does is wrong. Not just politically, but morally wrong. There is no character, no ethics, no sense of decency. Trump doesn’t get it because it’s the way he has always operated. Why, he may wonder, isn’t it working now?
For him, his cadre of supporters and hangers on—his “base”—maybe it is working. That may be the most appalling act of vandalism of all—the debasement of democracy and the enshrinement of authoritarian privilege and prejudice.