Optics Over Substance
President Trump attempted on Monday to project calm control during yet another moment of national crisis. He resorted to a speech threatening military action against American citizens and a photo op that projects shallowness and weakness.
In remarks from the White House Rose Garden on Monday evening, the president spoke about the uprisings that began as protests against police brutality following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25. “My administration is fully committed that, for George and his family, justice will be served. He will not have died in vain,” the president began. “But we cannot allow the righteous cries and peaceful protesters to be drowned out by an angry mob.” The president’s effort to demonstrate strength and leadership came after he spent the previous night in a basement bunker while violence raged outside the White House with its exterior lights turned off.
But the Rose Garden address failed to provide the leadership this moment calls for. In his desperation to appear strong he all but guaranteed there will be more destruction. The answer to outcry over the problem of police violence is not more aggressive police violence.
And the speech wasn’t just a failure on the substance—it was also poorly executed and self-sabotaging.
Before the president came out to speak, peaceful protesters gathered on the north side of Lafayette Square—where the buildings were still covered in graffiti from the night before, when police beat back protesters with tear gas, flash bangs, and pepper spray. Waiting for the president’s address, the protesters chanted “Hands up don’t shoot,” “Take a knee,” and “Lock them up.” At 6 p.m.—an hour before the curfew of 7 p.m., newly instituted that day by Mayor Muriel Bowser—the D.C. National Guard joined police in riot gear on the other side of barriers erected along the Square.
It had been announced that the president would speak at 6:15, but the Rose Garden podium remained empty. At about 6:35, the police began to fire tear gas and flash bangs against the crowd to clear the roads in front of Lafayette Square. Police then charged the protesters, violently beating them back.
All this happened within earshot of the reporters still waiting in the Rose Garden, who looked around as they heard the commotion. It is under these conditions that the president finally walked out to deliver a speech in which he declared himself “an ally of all peaceful protesters” before then threatening to deploy the U.S. military if governors fail to end the riots:
First, we are ending the riots and lawlessness that has spread throughout our country. We will end it now. Today, I have strongly recommended to every governor to deploy the National Guard in sufficient numbers that we dominate the streets. Mayors and governors must establish an overwhelming law enforcement presence until the violence has been quelled.
If a city or a state refuses to take the actions that are necessary to defend the life and property of their residents, then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them.
The networks broadcast these ominous remarks on a split screen: On one side, the president in the Rose Garden; on the other, peaceful protesters running away from police. Loud bangs and sirens were audible.
“I am your president of law and order,” Trump said. In the moment, it was unclear why the protesters were being forcibly removed during the speech—again, they were peaceful and the curfew hadn’t yet begun. Then, with his characteristic showman’s flair for suspense, Trump concluded by thanking America and saying, “And now I’m going to pay my respects to a very, very special place.” He left without clarifying where that very, very special place might be, but it quickly became apparent that his intended destination was St. John’s Episcopal Church, the church just north of the Lafayette Square and the White House—which explained the violent rush to remove the crowd gathered there.
The previous night, the basement of the church was set on fire, although the blaze was extinguished before it could cause severe damage. St. John’s Church “supported the bold civil rights moments of the March on Washington, which began at the Lincoln Memorial,” said White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany in her daily briefing earlier on Monday. Burning the church “doesn’t honor the legacy of George Floyd. It doesn’t further the cause. And those are violent anarchists, Antifa, who are taking advantage of the pain of people, the pain of the peaceful protesters.”
McEnany’s remarks denouncing those who have co-opted legitimate protests for derelict agendas are absolutely necessary and bear repeating. But the president, too, co-opted the site of the church—for a lame, awkward, and crass photo op, made possible by grotesque violence. His idea of “paying respects” to the church was to stand in front of its boarded-up windows, holding a Bible while the cameras of the White House press corps captured the image.
The photo op may have achieved the president’s goal of projecting bravery to console his base and suggest that he would protect them. But the means by which the photo was achieved—its incongruousness with the earlier image of protesters fleeing tear gas—weaken its integrity and reveal its cynical motivations.
Imagine a parallel universe in which the president doesn’t pull a Bible out of a Birkin bag and wave it around for cameras but instead takes the opportunity to kneel and pray for 8 minutes and 46 seconds in silence for and with the country. Imagine a president capable of paying respects to anyone or anything.
During the first few days of protests, the lack of coherent and clear communication from the White House—beyond the usual torrent of ill-advised tweets—led to much hyperbolic language from the press about the potential use of military force to quell the protests. Fear has dominated the vacuum of uncertainty.
Many have faced a two-wave hold-down: the virus continues to disproportionately affect the black community both at home and economically. George Floyd’s killing at the hands of the police was a third barrel.
Meanwhile, the president, consumed by his dependence on the economy and obsession with ratings does not understand the suffering of the people he has sworn to serve. With the election five months away and Trump consistently trailing his opponent in the polls, instead of addressing the concerns and grievances that instigated the uprisings, he is grasping for control by pantomiming a strongman.
Monday’s Rose Garden address was a chance to answer and offer recompense to the protesters and all of those in agony after months of staggering loss and pain. “I am taking immediate presidential action to stop the violence and restore security and safety in America,” Trump said. A statement that could have been followed by an acknowledgement of the protesters’ cause, and an explicit promise to take demonstrable action to address the problems of police brutality and systemic racism.
Instead, the president spoke to the only audience he cares about: the 35 percent of Americans he can count on in November no matter what. “I am mobilizing all available federal resources—civilian and military—to stop the rioting and looting, to end the destruction and arson, and to protect the rights of law-abiding Americans,” he said, “including your Second Amendment rights. . . . [W]e are ending the riots and lawlessness that has spread throughout our country. We will end it now.”
This was not a response to peaceful protests to which he is supposedly an ally. In fact, Trump himself did exactly what he said we should not do at the beginning of his speech: “We cannot allow the righteous cries and peaceful protesters to be drowned out by an angry mob.” He let the peaceful protesters be drowned out: His comments address only the problem of those who have seized the moment for vice under the cloak of confusion and chaos. Solely calling for an end to the rioting and looting is a failure to address the originating grievance. It is not an end to the outpouring of grief from the black community and all those who stand along with them demanding justice and reform.
To address only the violence in this way is to ignore the righteous and reduce the demonstrations to the worst actors. To refer at all to the Second Amendment can only be explained as a dog-whistle.
Where is the policy? Where is the East Room event for minority business owners affected by looters? Where is the listening session in the Roosevelt Room with families who have lost loved ones to police?
On past occasions, the president has shown himself capable of listening. The administration has made progress on prison reform—an obvious place to continue advancing civil rights protections. But the gross inequalities of how justice is meted out in America begins before minorities and those caught in the crosshairs of police brutality are brought to jail—the president’s agenda should reflect that. But why did it take Kim Kardashian’s voice to persuade the president and his policy advisers to pay attention to abuse in the justice system? Celebrity activism should not have more impact on the White House policy agenda than thousands marching in the streets.
All this and the country has still not had a national moment of silence for the victims of COVID-19. You can hear the press coughing in the video of Trump crossing Lafayette Square on his self-aggrandizing journey to church.
Declaring the riots over without promising to address the underlying systemic issues will only prolong this era of American carnage.
In February we wrote that the coronavirus was an opportunity for the president to show leadership where China had failed. This is another, arguably greater opportunity for him to lead and effectuate lasting change and reform that advances the cause of justice, order, and sanctity of law. An opportunity he has so far squandered.