The latest result of this was the assault at Lafayette Square on Monday night. Security forces bludgeoned and tear-gassed peaceful protesters so that Trump could hold up a Bible as a talisman to rally his base. The meticulous New York Times reconstruction of this fiasco suggests that it was planned during an Oval Office meeting that included Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and presidential adviser Hope Hicks. (Meadows “credited” Ivanka Trump with the idea.) None of these people would be employed in any other administration, yet they are setting the highest-level policy in this one.
The bad lieutenant who gave the orders to take Lafayette Square was Attorney General William P. Barr. Barr has long acted as Trump’s enforcer rather than as the nation’s chief law enforcement officer. He has been pursuing investigations of the investigators who probed Trump’s links to Russia, while all but abandoning investigations of unconstitutional policing tactics that have resulted in the abuse of so many minorities.
As soon as protests over the death of George Floyd began sweeping America, Barr was quick to conflate peaceful demonstrators with dangerous looters. Without citing any evidence, the attorney general claimed that “the violence is planned, organized and driven by anarchic and far left extremist groups using Antifa-like tactics.” This has now become Trump’s mantra — it’s all the fault of “the ANTIFA led anarchists” — as it was once an article of faith for Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon that communists were behind antiwar and civil rights protests.
National security adviser Robert C. O’Brien — a.k.a. the Invisible Man — has been a lesser enabler, his role seemingly limited to opining, in defiance of all the evidence, that there is no “systemic racism” in law enforcement. Much more important have been Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They both joined Trump in his sashay of shame across Lafayette Square, and in Esper’s case, after having advised state governors to “dominate the battlespace” of America’s cities.
Now, having reaped the whirlwind, Esper and Milley are trying desperately to distance themselves from the president. Esper said on Tuesday he thought they were going to inspect a vandalized bathroom in Lafayette Square and, on Wednesday, he expressed opposition to sending active-duty troops into America’s streets. This is a long overdue sign of independence from a defense secretary who — from shifting Pentagon funds to build a border wall to refusing to reinstate Navy Capt. Brett Crozier of the USS Theodore Roosevelt — has, until now, been a Trump enabler. Naturally, Esper’s hint that he has a backbone at all has placed his job in danger.
That is not a risk the Republican invertebrates in Congress are willing to run. When MSNBC’s Kasie Hunt asked GOP senators whether they had any comment on the disturbing events in Lafayette Square, almost all of them dodged the question. Two of the senators — Mike Enzi of Wyoming and Rob Portman of Ohio — used as their excuse that they were “late for lunch.” Out to lunch is more like it.
Only a few Republicans expressed even the mildest disagreement. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), infamous as a font of ineffectual criticism, said it was “painful” to watch peaceful protesters being gassed. It is also painful to watch so many Republicans who had the opportunity to impeach and remove Trump refuse to grapple with their own complicity — or to do anything, even now, to rectify their cravenness. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) effortlessly segued from expressing disappointment with events in Lafayette Square (it was “a bad night”) to launching Senate Judiciary Committee hearings into the deranged “Obamagate” conspiracy theory that Trump has been promulgating in his effort to win reelection.
It is impressive to see the speed with which Republicans metamorphose from critics of presidential tyranny into advocates of it. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), an Army veteran, advocated the deployment of “the 10th Mountain, 82nd Airborne, 1st Cav, 3rd Infantry — whatever it takes to restore order. No quarter for insurrectionists, anarchists, rioters, and looters.” This is how a leading light of the GOP wants to deal with anti-racism protests — by employing maximum force and taking no prisoners (which is what “no quarter” means). Trump said Cotton was “100% correct.”
By contrast, when gun-waving white extremists terrorized the Michigan Legislature last month to protest public health decrees, Trump advocated a policy of appeasement. “The Governor of Michigan should give a little, and put out the fire,” he tweeted. Now, Trump is stoking the fires of racial discord as out-to-lunch Republicans pretend not to notice.
Anne Applebaum is right in her brilliant, clear-eyed Atlantic essay: “History will judge the complicit.” But we don’t have to wait for the judgment of history. Voters can and should deliver their own judgment on Nov. 3: Vote out Trump’s collaborators. Every single one.