Clergy called out the stunt for what it was: a desecration. “We hold the teachings of our sacred texts to be so, so grounding to our lives and everything we do,” said the Right Rev. Mariann Budde, the Episcopal bishop of Washington. “It is about love of neighbor and sacrificial love and justice.”
The president’s sycophants did what sycophants do. Former Wisconsin governor Scott Walker (R) tweeted a photograph of Trump walking across the park. Walker marveled: “Hard to imagine any other @POTUS having the guts to walk out of the White House like this: @realDonaldTrump.”
As CNN’s Jake Tapper subsequently noted, Dwight D. Eisenhower was supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe in World War II. Both John F. Kennedy and George H.W. Bush distinguished themselves with acts of heroism in the Pacific theater.
To suggest that Trump’s theatrics could compare to — much less surpass — the valor shown by these and other worthy men who preceded him is to confuse reality television with reality itself.
More important, however, is the fact that, with each passing day, Trump adds to the pile of evidence that he is incapable of lifting the nation out of the darkness it is in.
The president rages, he vows to “dominate the streets,” he threatens, he inflames. These are the impulses of a bully, not a leader. What Trump does not do — does not seem to care to do — is unify and heal.
Nor does he seem to listen to the voices of protest, which have largely been nonviolent. Demonstrations across the country were sparked by the death of a single unarmed black man in Minneapolis, George Floyd, who was asphyxiated as a white police officer’s knee bore down on his neck. But the grievances they represent go back further than the nation itself.
President Lyndon B. Johnson said something profound and prescient in 1968, when cities across the country erupted in violence after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the preeminent leader of the civil rights movement.
“What did you expect?” Johnson told an aide. “I don’t know why we’re surprised. When you put your foot on a man’s neck and hold him down for 300 years, and then you let him up, what’s he going to do? He’s going to knock your block off.”
A leader with true strength would have the capacity to console and to deliver a vision of how things could be different. We got a glimpse of that on Tuesday morning when presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden delivered an address at Philadelphia’s City Hall.
The former vice president has been far from a flawless candidate, and his own record on criminal justice has at times been problematic. But in rising to this moment, Biden’s pitch was perfect.
He declared that there is “no place for looting or destroying property or burning churches, or destroying businesses — many of them built by people of color who for the first time were beginning to realize their dreams and build wealth for their families.”
But Biden also noted that Floyd’s last words — “I can’t breathe” — should serve as “a wake-up call . . . for all of us.”
“They speak to a nation where too often just the color of your skin puts your life at risk,” Biden said. “They speak to a nation where more than 100,000 people have lost their lives to a virus and 40 million have filed for unemployment — with a disproportionate number of these deaths and job losses concentrated in the black and brown communities.”
Biden also outlined tangible steps that should be taken now, rather than waiting for the November election. They start with outlawing police chokeholds. Beyond that, Biden called for demilitarizing police forces and improving their oversight and accountability.
Trump believes that the forces that have been unleashed can be tamed by fear. What Biden is offering is a reason to hope. I wouldn’t hazard a guess which of those alternatives voters will choose in November. But I do know that only one of them points the way to a future that could be better than the nightmare in which we are living now.