(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;He knew human folly like the back of his hand,And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,And when he cried the little children died in the streets.
—W.H. Auden, “Epitaph on a Tyrant”
Donald Trump strolled from the White House to the steps of St. John’s Church last Monday to take the stage for the most emblematic performance in the most definitive week of his presidency.His eldest daughter fished a Bible from her purse and passed it to him. He weighed it, turning it around in his hands as police sirens wailed from side streets. Then he held the Good Book above his shoulder, like an auction paddle poised for a bid.“We have a great country, that’s my thoughts,” he said. “The greatest country in the world. We’ll make it even greater. We will make it even greater. It won’t take long. It’s not gonna take long. You see what’s going on. It’s coming back. It’s coming back strong. It will be greater than ever before.”He moved stage left and presented his prop to the cameras again, turning its spine outward to make sure his audience got it: The Bible. Fumbling through a last bit of choreography, he invited his secretary of defense, attorney general, national security advisor, press secretary and chief of staff to stand next to him. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, dressed in combat fatigues, watched from the wings. Somewhere above that all-white cast, helicopter blades whirred. And then it ended.“Okay. Thank you very much. We have the greatest country in the world,” Trump said as he headed back behind the curtains and tossed out a warning. “We’re gonna keep it nice and safe.”The St. John’s gig was a raw abuse of Trump’s powers, a stunt made possible by deploying state violence to clear a path through peaceful protesters saddened and angered by George Floyd’s death at the hands of police. It marked an end to several days of hibernation as Trump, hiding behind White House walls, his Twitter feed and his golf game, did his best to avoid the pain and anger unspooling across America. But his St. John’s show also was designed to intimidate protesters, stoking fear among people of color who have been demanding merely that their government and police refrain from killing them. And it was tragically off-kilter, a politically inept bit of stagecraft that served only to showcase his irresponsibility and utter lack of empathy.But I suspect Trump was nonetheless happy. Even if the staging ultimately doesn’t serve him well electorally, it will still serve him well personally. Because however unraveled he may be about weak poll numbers and social disarray he can’t control, performing at St. John’s advanced one of his few long-term goals: promoting Trumpism so that it endures beyond his presidency. Whenever his tenure ends, I imagine Trump will attempt to start or buy a media company that can compete with Fox News and do battle with everyone else. He will continue to tour stadiums, offering the faithful a spiritual revival a la Elmer Gantry. He will remain a force in Republican politics, darkening the national conversation.Trump has used his time in the White House to cement his relationship with right-wing hardliners, older white guys, conservative Christians, anti-government loners, displaced rural and industrial workers and the more generally aggrieved. He’ll do anything to preserve that bond, even if it means tearing the country apart and fencing off the White House.
Trump loyalists may not recognize it as such, but Trumpism is fundamentally anarchic. It puts racial tolerance, equality, community, authority, morality, expertise, justice, national security and economic progress in play by relentlessly attacking institutions and the conversations meant to promote them.
There’s no substantive vision about what should replace those institutions, let alone a familiarity with the values that inform them. Instead, there’s only an unmoored cult of personality. Trump, who doesn’t read books, thinks “The Art of the Deal” ranks closely to the Bible on must-read lists, providing fodder for comedians such as Sarah Cooper. He’s referred to himself publicly as “the Chosen One” but can’t respond coherently when asked to cite passages from the Bible that hold special meaning for him. “You know, when I talk about the Bible it’s very personal so I don’t want to get into verses,” he told reporters five years ago when his presidential bid began. “The Bible means a lot to me, but I don’t want to get into specifics.”Details, details. Despite having a tenuous grasp of reality and the machinery of government, Trump has survived more than three years of shambolic leadership, federal investigations and an impeachment inquiry. But his response to the Covid-19 pandemic and this week’s wave of street protests have exposed the consequences of his malfeasance in ways that earlier scandals haven’t. His suggestion during a White House press conference that injecting disinfectants might combat the coronavirus is one stark example; taking to Twitter on Thursday night to brand protesters he booted from the park around St. John’s as “terrorists” was also clarifying. The president is wantonly putting lives at risk, especially among the most vulnerable.By week’s end, Trump had been taken to task belatedly by military leaders and former defense secretary James Mattis for undermining the Constitution by threatening to send soldiers into the streets. Even some Republican senators were moved to question his conduct.
He still seemed undeterred. In fact, the protesters in the streets offered a golden opportunity to fire up his base. He has his own militia, after all. A letter his presidential campaign sent to potential supporters last week reminded them that they were among his “fiercest and most loyal defenders” and they would each “make an excellent addition to the Trump Army.” In exchange for $35, the campaign promised a “Limited Edition Camo Keep America Great Hat.” Proud wearers would be “the President’s first line of defense when it comes to fighting off the Liberal MOB.”Maybe this kind of stuff is just fun and games for the Trumpistas. But it’s at odds with Trump’s claims — at a press conference he held just before riot officers and police set upon non-violent protesters near St. John’s — that he’s the “President of Law and Order” and “an ally of all peaceful protesters.” Never mind that his administration has maneuvered aggressively to posit that he, as president, exists above the law. A quartet of distinguished law professors — Joshua Geltzer, Neal Katyal, Jennifer Taub and Laurence Tribe — noted in a Washington Post essay on Thursday that “the Trump administration’s authoritarian behavior on the streets is being matched by its authoritarian positions in the federal courts.”
The welcome, but quite possibly temporary, news of May’s better-than-expected employment numbers also gave Trump’s week an unexpected bounce. He grabbed that opening to hold an impromptu and classically bonkers press conference on Friday to celebrate.
Having insisted from the earliest days of his presidency that the robust economy he inherited was his creation, he visited the Rose Garden to boast about “the greatest economy in the history of our country.” Maintaining that narrative is critical for Trump’s survival and underlies much of his magical thinking about the severity of the pandemic and its economic fallout. So the May jobs data, he told the media, “was a very big day for our country.” Then he free associated about “cures” for “the China plague that floated in” and created a “ventilator period” around the U.S. He said two million Covid-19 vaccines were “ready to go.” He repeatedly suggested that the country has already made safe passage through the pandemic and promised that what looked like a looming economic depression was instead poised to become “a rocket ship.”
Of course, workers and their employers may simply be benefiting from the massive federal bailout launched in April. Much of that lift may dissipate if government benefits run out. But for now, Trump said he sees a continued economic rebound leading to a “spectacular October, November, December.” Spectacular, that is, if you forget the catastrophic policy mistakes that got us here in the first place and overlook tens of millions of unemployed workers who are still likely to face daunting challenges for years to come. Trump also glossed over the fact that the May data showed an already bleak employment landscape growing worse for black workers. Accentuating the positive and eliminating the negative is on brand for Trump, as is his administration’s failure to reconcile its morning-in-America platitudes with the singular economic and social disenfranchisement that African-Americans continue to face.Trump did, however, keep someone in mind during Friday’s briefing: George Floyd."Under the law must mean that every American receives equal treatment in every encounter with law enforcement regardless of race, color, gender or creed. They have to receive fair treatment,” he said. “Hopefully George is looking down right now and saying, ‘This is a great thing that's happening for our country,’ This is a great day for him, it’s a great day for everybody. This is a great for everybody. This is a great, great day in terms of equality. It’s really what our Constitution requires and it’s what our country is all about.”Despite his sudden devotion to Floyd, and the idea that Floyd is soaking up economic news in heaven, Trump still hasn’t managed to attend any of Floyd’s memorial services. And Trump’s Rose Garden remarks Friday didn’t acknowledge all of the fair and equal treatment police had meted out with their batons and shields to the bodies of protestors in Los Angeles, Buffalo and other cities the day before. Out in the real world, Washington, D.C., and its mayor, Muriel Bowser, took a more direct path than Trump to memorialize last week’s events. The district painted enormous yellow “Black Lives Matter” letters across 16th Street in front of the White House on Friday. And the square by St. John’s where Trump staged his photo op was renamed, fittingly enough, Black Lives Matter Plaza.Later that evening, Bowser had the streets around St. John’s illuminated for Trump. “We turned on the night light for him so he dreams about #BlackLivesMatter Plaza,” she tweeted.Trump, alas, dreams only of himself. And he crossed his Rubicon last week. Don’t expect him to let go of anything. Whether he serves a second term as president or moves on to reshape himself as a media titan, he intends to stay very much with us. We’ll need leaders like Bowser, and the protesters galvanizing the country, to keep standing tall.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Timothy L. O'Brien is a senior columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.
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