The walk, the display of the Bible and the return to the White House through a phalanx of armored law enforcement personnel were quickly edited into a surreal video with a soaring soundtrack. But nothing quite worked, and though its producers clearly aspired to the inspirational bombast of Steven Spielberg or perhaps Leni Riefenstahl, they could barely muster a second-rate pastiche of Charlie Chaplin.
Only minutes earlier, the president had spoken to the nation from the Rose Garden, where he said that he was recommending that every governor “deploy the National Guard in sufficient numbers that we dominate the streets.” The curious walk across a square that had been violently cleared of peaceful protesters with the help of smoke canisters and rubber bullets was his attempt to demonstrate that dominance of public space. But in a city that has never loved Trump — he won just 4 percent of the vote in 2016 — he took the only public space immediately available to him, the square that is effectively the president’s front yard.
The edited video will probably never displace, in the minds of most Americans, the truth of the scene as it unfolded in real time, broadcast at the dinner hour yesterday. Lafayette Square, bestrewed with garbage and covered with graffiti, looked terrible in the images that emerged, and the president didn’t look much better. After three years in office, he hasn’t mastered the basic repertoire of postures and motion that convey a sense of occasion, dignity or gravitas. So, he shambled across a park dominated by an equestrian statue of Andrew Jackson, who also used violence to dispossess people of land, only to arrive suddenly at the church, which he didn’t enter.
The abrupt end of his victory march, and his fidgeting before the parish house, undermined any sense of stateliness. He seemed, for a moment, to be as confined in his front yard as so many Americans have been for months now in their houses and apartments. He wanted to say that a law-and-order regime had pacified Washington, which like cities and towns all across the country, is furious about how callously our institutions, including the police, treat all people of color and black people in particular. But in the end, all he seemed to say was: I am master of this patch of sidewalk, flanked by boarded-up buildings, emptied of the people who gather here to participate in the public life of a democracy.
The ritual, however, contains clues as to the direction of his presidency. It was improvised, ill-planned and fundamentally cruel in its execution, but it signals a new chapter in how Trump will relate to the city, and the country. In his Rose Garden speech, he mentioned not just the protest-related damage to the church, but minor damage (some graffiti) to the Lincoln Memorial and World War II Memorial as justifications for “mobilizing all available, federal resources, civilian and military” to stop the destruction.
Trump’s truncated power strut across Lafayette Square thus seems an effort to claim a couple of new titles in the public’s imagination, the sort of titles more common to authoritarian or monarchical rule: Defender of the Faith, Defender of Monuments, Defender of Heritage. It will be difficult for him to authentically own any of these titles, because he demonstrates virtually no understanding of spiritual matters or history. But he seems to intuit that the next step in his deeply disturbing trajectory is to divorce the symbolic city of Washington from the actual city.
For most presidents, Washington is a hackneyed metaphor for bad governance, for the dysfunction they have been elected to fix. But the actual city — its people, neighborhoods, parks and streetscape — is another thing, more or less a part of a president’s daily life, frequently neglected but rarely the direct target of executive violence. As Trump struggles in the polls, as the nation reels from a pandemic, as the economy wallows in the worst unemployment since the Great Depression, as allies desert us and new powers take up the mantle of international leadership, the city of Washington is the closest, easiest and most likely target of the president’s wrath.
It could be a time of provocation and indignities. It will almost certainly involve perverting the basic message of beloved spaces, changing the valence of churches from care and succor to triumph and victory, converting memorials from sites of reconciliation to sites of domination — as he did last summer with a Fourth of July partisan display of military power in front of the Lincoln Memorial. He will try to embitter people about things that once offered hope and substitute cynical partisan tribalism for the old, imperfect idealism of one American Dream and destiny.
The recent damage to the Lincoln Memorial that the president cited in his Rose Garden speech included these words, painted on one of the stone piers that flank the staircase to the shrine: “Yall not tired yet?” This figure of speech was probably meant to suggest extreme frustration with the persistence of racism and the failure of reform, and perhaps make reference to the call-and-response tradition of gospel.
But these could be the words of Lincoln himself, speaking a contemporary coda to his second inaugural address, which is chiseled on the walls of the memorial. After positing the Civil War as the necessary and inevitable price the nation had to pay for the sin of slavery, Lincoln uttered what seem today the most inspiring, and the most tragically unfulfilled words ever spoken by a president: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
The work is undone, the wounds are still debilitating. Trump’s orchestrated walk was meant to suggest that the work doesn’t need doing, that law and order can accomplish what love, sacrifice and humility cannot.
But the futility of Trump’s new ritual, its shabbiness and self-satire, suggests that he doesn’t have a clue about the symbolic city he wants to claim as his own. No matter how hard he tries to put his stamp on it, its meaning will always elude him. No matter how tired the nation is, as long as people still do the work, still risk their health and well-being to gather in protest in public places, still argue over the meaning and value of imperfect memorials, still strive for a genuine peace based on an authentic charity, spectacles like the new one unveiled Monday will seem silly and insignificant. And if they are remembered at all, it will be with execration and contempt.