The protesters who gather nightly across the street in Lafayette Square have been largely peaceful and early incidents of looting have been sporadic. Nonetheless, the president of the United States has erected a barrier that separates him from both the crowds and their anguish over the choking death of George Floyd, an unarmed and handcuffed African American man, whose neck was pinned under the knee of a police officer.
What’s next? The moat filled with alligators and snakes that he once suggested to keep migrants from coming over the 2,000-mile border with Mexico?
This is the kind of redoubt that authoritarian rulers in third-world countries build to protect themselves from the passions of their own aggrieved people, and a far cry from the “people’s house” that has for centuries symbolized a president accountable to the citizens who elected him.
After spending his first night in the not-yet-completed presidential residence in November 1800, John Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail: “I Pray Heaven Bestow the Best of Blessings on This House and All that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but Honest and Wise Men ever rule under this Roof.”
Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered that those words be inscribed on the State Dining Room fireplace, over which hung a portrait of Abraham Lincoln. This was during the final year of World War II. Though there had been fears that the White House might be the target of enemy bombers, Roosevelt resisted the security measures that were being urged upon him — among them sandbags and camouflage. He knew that it would shake the country’s confidence to see its president living in what looked like a bunker.
Of course, it has been a long time since average Americans could freely roam the grounds as they did in Roosevelt’s day.
After the 1981 assassination attempt that nearly killed Ronald Reagan, the Secret Service finally got its long-standing wish to require visitors to pass through magnetometers at the White House entrances. Once they began screening, agents were startled to discover concealed guns on hundreds of visitors — many of them tourists who had armed themselves against what they assumed were the dangerous streets of Washington.
In 1995, after the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, Bill Clinton closed a two-block stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue to vehicular traffic.
Republicans were among the harshest critics of the measure. Sen. Bob Dole (Kan.), Clinton’s Republican opponent in 1996, promised that if he were elected, he would reverse the move. “There ought to be other ways to protect the president,” Dole said.
In the 2000 election, the Republican platform promised: “We will reopen Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House as a symbolic expression of our confidence in the restoration of the rule of law.’’
It is striking — and telling — that Trump has not yet shown the nerve it would take to meet with any of the protesters. Even Richard M. Nixon did that much, venturing from the White House in the predawn hours one day in May 1970 to have an awkward talk with antiwar student activists who had gathered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
No such opportunity would present itself when Trump walked across Lafayette Square to have his Bible-waving photo op at St. John’s Episcopal Church on Monday evening. Before he made his appearance, demonstrators were ambushed and dispersed with smoke canisters, explosive devices, rubber bullets and horses.
But the illusion of control that Trump is trying to create is crumbling.
On Friday, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) renamed the plaza in front of the White House “Black Lives Matter Plaza” in honor of the demonstrators. And like an arrow pointed straight at Trump’s stronghold, she had those three words painted in enormous yellow letters on the pavement along two blocks of 16th Street NW leading directly to the White House from the north.
It is a striking sight, especially from the air. Maybe Trump will see it as he watches cable news and rages on Twitter.
And at some point, perhaps, the reality that everyone else can see will dawn upon even Trump: A president who needs to take shelter behind fences and barriers because he feels threatened by his own citizens is not their leader. He is their prisoner.