The Disgrace of Donald TrumpRoundup
tags: Donald Trump, Protest, Law and Order
Sean Wilentz is the Sidney and Ruth Lapidus Professor of the American Revolutionary Era at Princeton University.
Donald Trump's astounding incompetence in recent months — worsening the effects of the lethal COVID-19 pandemic, mishandling the ensuing economic disaster, and maliciously inflaming racial tensions — has affirmed that he is without question the worst president in American history. None of the other contenders for the dishonor, including James Buchanan and most recently George W. Bush, can match Trump’s record of bringing on or aggravating three devastating crises at the same time, any one of which might have ruined another president’s reputation. And two incidents amid the turmoil suggest that Trump, having made a career out of shafting justice, might finally pay the price.
The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25th, recorded on an anguished teenager’s cellphone, may prove the equivalent, for this generation, of the pictures from a half-century ago of police dogs attacking peaceful black protesters in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, or of the tear-gassing and beating of black voting-rights marchers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, two years later. Trump has skillfully exploited the bitterness and despair of the nation’s racial divide, thrilling his supporters with his undisguised invective, but after that grotesque incident went viral, public consciousness snapped. The nationwide demonstrations that followed, to say nothing of those abroad, have amounted to the largest such protest of American racial injustice ever, far surpassing the protest gatherings of the abolitionists before the Civil War or the civil-rights movement in the 1960s.
Then, a second event, the battle of Lafayette Square on June 1st, dramatized the authoritarian essence of Trump’s presidency, and may well be a turning point that leads to his downfall and repudiation. Besieged by the protests over Floyd’s killing, removed to his White House bunker, and publicly accused of cowardice, Trump would not permit his humiliation to stand. To “dominate,” as he put it, he assembled the press corps in the White House Rose Garden and threatened to unleash the entire U.S. military. Then, he and his entourage — Attorney General William Barr, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley (dressed in battle fatigues), and national security adviser Robert O’Brien — marched across the street to pose for a photo-op in front of St. John’s Church. Ivanka Trump pulled a Bible out of her Max Mara handbag and gave the prop to her father, who awkwardly held it up for the cameras. After this performance, workers constructed tall fences around Lafayette Square and the White House. Trump finally had his wall — and Mexico still hadn’t paid for it.
The political calculation behind Trump’s latest reality-TV display had historical overtones, dating back to the white-backlash “law and order” demagogy that helped elect Richard Nixon in 1968. In the Rose Garden, Trump proclaimed, “I am your president of law and order,” at the very minute that police cleared the way for his arrival in Lafayette Square by attacking law-abiding demonstrators with tear gas and sting-ball grenades. Having appropriated Nixon’s tag line, Trump then tried to one-up him with his Bible-toting God-and-country theatrics. Politics receded back into pathology.
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