It’s hard to know where to start writing about what we all just witnessed earlier this evening.
Donald Trump was scheduled to speak in the Rose Garden at 6:30pm. Shortly before his speech, Attorney General Bill Barr came out to inspect the crowd. Then federal police used tear gas, flash grenades and rubber bullets to drive-out peaceful protesters in Lafayette Square Park, located across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House.
Trump’s speech was short. He said that he was an ally of all peaceful protesters. This is another Trump lie. I wrote about that here, but the act of driving these protesters out of the park today was a sign that he does not support peaceful protesters. More on this below.
His speech did not address the racial tensions in America that led to these protests. There was no empathy for the plight of African-Americans in the United States. Trump is incapable of this.
Trump rightly condemned the destruction of property and the outside rabble-rousers who, by all reports, are causing this damage. But rather than trying to bring the country together, he blamed state governors for the riots and destruction in major urban areas. (He did the same thing on a call with governors this morning). At one point in the speech, Trump said that he wants “healing” not “hatred.” Please look in the mirror Mr. President. You are an agent of hate in this country. There is nothing you have done in your presidency thus far to bring any kind of national healing whatsoever.
When Trump said “America always wins,” he was not referring to a much-needed victory over the evil of racial injustice, but was rather referring to the use of military force and violence to stop the riots. This, for Trump, is the only way he understands a “win” for America. Trump plans to mobilize the U.S. Army in cities around the country through the use of the 1807 Insurrection Act (I will write more on this in another post) to “dominate the streets.” He also sent a dog-whistle to his base by referencing his protection of Second Amendment rights. Some will no doubt see this as the president telling them to take matters into their own hands.
When Trump talked about justice in this speech, he meant quelling the riots through force. He did mention justice for George Floyd, but these words have no meaning until his presidency reverses course on the issue of race. Trump must not only stop the race-baiting, but must support policies that will address systemic racism in America. I don’t see this happening because Trump does not understand the true meaning of justice.
I wrote about justice this morning, with the help of 20th-century German moral philosopher Joseph Pieper: “…the claim implicit in the principle of justice [is that we] must confirm the other person in his otherness and procure for him that which is due.” Justice starts with empathy and understanding, but Trump is a narcissist and he does not read.
Throughout the speech, Trump kept saying that he is a “law and order” president. This is another dog-whistle. Here is what I wrote about this phrase in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump:
For most Americans, “law and order” is associated with Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign. According to historian Michael Flamm, “law and order was the most important domestic issue in the presidential election and arguably the decisive factor in Richard Nixon’s narrow triumph over Hubert Humphrey.” As might be expected, the need to bring law and order to American streets was a response to a significant rise in crime during the 1960s, particularly among African Americans and juveniles in American cities. The high crime rate among black men brought fear to white working-class Americans. Flamm notes that “by the late 1960s, white Americans overwhelmingly associated street crime with African Americans, who were more than seventeen times likely as white men to be arrested for robbery. The worst fears of white Americans materialized in the summer of 1967, when race riots broke out in Detroit and Newark. The violence continued in 1968 following the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. In Chicago, Mayor Richard Daly ordered his police officers to shoot looters on sight in the street. In Washington D.C. , race riots, led by black activist Stokely Carmichael, came within blocks of the White House, prompting President Lyndon Johnson to dispatch federal troops armed with machine guns to quell the violence. Later in the year, the Chicago police used tear gas to control protesters at the Democratic National Convention.
The Nixon campaign capitalized on the chaos. Nixon promised that, if elected, he would end the riots–using force if necessary. His campaign blamed the lack of law and order on the Democrats and portrayed his opponent, Hubert Humphrey, as weak on crime. Nixon consistently denied he used the phrase “law and order” to send a message to white voters who feared African American violence, but many of his conservative supporters clearly heard the message. Nixon walked a fine line on matters related to race. He was aware, from watching his independent opponent, George Wallace, that calling attention to racial difference worked very well in presidential campaign, especially in the South. Yet Nixon was not Wallace: he opposed segregation and supported the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Still, when he was not in front of the cameras, he was not reticent about his disdain for the “damn negroes.” He confided to his counsel, John Ehrlichman, that Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs would not help African Americans because “blacks were genetically inferior to whites.” After filming a campaign advertisement calling for law and order in public schools, Nixon said to his aides, “Yet, this hits it right on the nose…it’s all about law and order and the damn Negro-Puerto Rican groups out there.
Like Nixon, Donald Trump claims that his use of the term “law and order” has nothing to do with race. Yet when he combines the phrase with a steady drumbeat of attention to “Muslim terrorists” or illegal Mexican immigrants that he claims were committing violent crimes, he is sending a message to his largely white working-class constituency that he hears, shares, and prioritizes their fears. Trump wants to restore law and order to America much like Nixon promised to do in the 1960s. Is this what he has in mind when he says he wants to make America great again?
After Trump’s speech, he walked out the front door of the White House to nearby St. John’s Episcopal Church. It is known as the “Church of the Presidents” because every American president, beginning with James Madison, has attended the church (presidents sit in pew 54). During some of the protests on Sunday night (March 31) a fire started outside the church and spread into the basement of the parish house. It was extinguished quickly and there was no major damage. The words “The Devil is across the street” was sprayed on the church in graffiti and windows were smashed.
Trump walked to St. John’s for a photo-op. The church did not know he was coming and both the Episcopal bishop of Washington D.C. and the rector of the church have condemned the visit.
Trump stood before the church and held-up a Bible. When a reporter asked him if he was holding his Bible, Trump said it was “a Bible.” He then invited several members of his cabinet and staff to join him. (Interestingly enough, Mike Pence was not present).
And that is all he did. He stood there, held-up the Bible at a couple of different angles, and then left. He did not pray. He did not offer words of comfort or healing. He did not pray for the coronavirus victims. The message was clear. Trump’s law and order response–an approach with deep roots in racism and violence–is somehow informed by the Old and New Testament. (Once again, let’s remember that Trump’s favorite Bible verse is “an eye for an eye”). Off the top of my head, I cannot think of a U.S. president who has used a Bible–a material object representing the word of God–in this way.
Here a good rule of thumb. Whenever a public official uses the Bible to justify law and order during times of unrest, expect the worst. I think history offers some good lessons on this front, from politicians in the antebellum South to Nazi Germany. One should also be concerned when a president uses tear gas, rubber bullets, and flash grenades to remove peaceful protesters in front of a church for the purpose of using this sacred space to fortify such a show of power.
What we witnessed today was the president using this moment of racial strife and social unrest to announce his November 2020 campaign strategy. He will present himself as a strongman who will protect fearful white people. In this sense, he is like the Savage in C.S. Lewis’s Pilgrim’s Regress—a Nietzschian warlord who tells Vertue that “If I am to live in a world of destruction let me be its agent and not its patient.” And he will justify all of this using the Bible–a direct appeal to his fearful white evangelical base who believe Trump is their divinely-appointed champion. It was all staged, not unlike a reality television show.
The court evangelicals, as expected, support what Trump did today. If you believe that America is a Christian nation and needs to be reclaimed as such, then anytime the president lifts a Bible, and especially if it is done at a historic church, it is a great thing.
Here is Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Church in Dallas:
Fox News has Robert Jeffress lined-up for an early morning appearance:
Expect Jeffress to talk about this.
Tony Perkins just retweeted:
Here is Marc Burns:
I am reminded of a quote I added to the Commonplace Book this morning:
All moral laws derive from one law: that of truth” [Goethe]…A person who is incapable of viewing things impartially, uninfluenced by the affirmations or negations of the will, a person who is incapable, for a time, of simply keeping silent and perceiving what is there, and then of converting what he has seen and learned into a decision, is incapable of achieving the good, or in other words is incapable of performing an ethical act in the full sense of the term. —Joseph Pieper, “The Art of Making Right Decisions,” *Civitas* (1970) in The Weight of Belief: Essays on Faith in a Modern Age, 212.
For the sake of the country, Trump needs to keep silent and start “perceiving what is there.”