(CNN)President Donald Trump’s made-for-TV embrace of authoritarianism’s imagery and tools at a brittle national moment risks unleashing toxic political forces that threaten America’s democratic traditions.
Trump on Monday turned security forces on peaceful protesters in front of the White House, as tear gas and rubber bullets flew, before declaring himself the “law and order” President. Then, in one of the most bizarre moments in modern presidential history, he strode across the park to stand in front of an iconic church holding a Bible aloft in a striking photo op.
It was a moment of vanity and bravado — orchestrated for the cameras and transparently political — as Trump struggles to cope with protests sweeping the country after the killing of George Floyd and tries to cover up his botched leadership during the coronavirus pandemic.
Trump appeared to be trying to project strength at a moment when his presidency seems feckless and as the nation spins out of control. If it occurred abroad and not in the White House, Americans might perceive a ridiculous self-deluding act of a wanna-be strongman.
“I thought I was watching a scene from something in Turkey, and not in the United States,” retired Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, who commanded National Guard troops in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, told CNN’s Anderson Cooper.
And after using St. John’s Church, the “church of the presidents,” which had experienced a basement fire during Sunday’s demonstrations, Trump drew immediate criticism from faith leaders, including Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington.
“The President just used the Bible, our sacred text of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and one of the churches of my diocese, without permission, as a backdrop for a message antithetical to the teachings of Jesus,” Budde said on “AC360.”
Trump’s showmanship was motivated in part by anger at media coverage saying he had sheltered in a bunker below the White House on Friday night amid protests in Washington, CNN’s Kaitlan Collins and Kevin Liptak reported. It shows how far Trump will go to protect his own thin skin and how his power plays are often motivated by assaults on his dignity.
But his behavior is also alarming, considering the vast power at his command, uses of demagogic tropes and capacity to buckle the traditions and structures of civilian, democratic government. So while Trump’s turn to the rhetoric of the despotic leaders he so admires had elements of farce, it opened a sinister new chapter in his presidency and a challenge to American norms.
Trump’s transparent strongman act
Standing in the White House Rose Garden in front of American flags, with the crack of flash bangs audible, Trump threatened to invoke a centuries-old law to deploy federal troops to states.
“I will fight to protect you. I am your President of law and order and an ally of all peaceful protesters,” Trump declared, warning the country was in the grip of “professional anarchists, violent mobs … arsonists, looters, criminals, rider rioters, Antifa and others.”
The gaslighting and emptiness of Trump’s words was evident in television pictures that showed the crowd outside, which appeared young and a mixture of races and ethnicities, peacefully demonstrating moments before.
Before Trump spoke, Attorney General William Barr, a promoter of almost unfettered presidential power, stood grimly in Lafayette Park adjacent to the White House, tieless, hands in pockets staring at the crowd.
The sight of fleeing peaceful protesters amid smoke and the crack of crowd control bullets from riot police and soldiers with shields was itself a stain on fundamental US values.
It came on a day when the President’s defense secretary, Mark Esper, started to refer to American cities hit by protests and looting as “battle space” and Trump supporter Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Florida, was censured by Twitter for asking whether it was OK to “hunt down” anti-fascist Antifa activists “like those we do in the Middle East.”
Trump’s highly inflammatory maneuver came at a moment of extraordinary tension amid concurrent national crises, with unrest sparked by the Floyd killing exposing the country’s raw racial wounds, which Trump has spent years exacerbating.
More than 104,000 Americans are dead in a pandemic that Trump ignored until it was too late. National nerves and morale are stretched taut by a dive into an economic chasm that has seen 40 million Americans lose their jobs in coronavirus shutdowns. In these circumstances, and with no evidence that he has any plan to ameliorate the impact of the trio of challenges facing America, Trump’s swaggering is transparently a diversion.
In many ways, suggesting that he is some kind of holy warrior for tough-guy justice was his most shameless play to his political base yet, after noticeably including an inflammatory reference to the Second Amendment in his Rose Garden remarks.
While Trump’s critics are troubled by the echoes of dictatorship, his show of strength is likely to go down well with his most loyal supporters, who embraced his stark vision of America under assault by lawlessness in 2016. His speech and action were already being lauded on Fox News and among prominent conservatives on social media Monday night, in a manner likely to encourage Trump to flex his powers even more.
Yet the fact he ordered US troops against peaceful protesters for a mere photo op shows how far he may be willing to go to use every tool of presidential power in the service of his reelection. That realization alone opens up troubling visions of more democratic guardrails being crushed along the way. The fact that this is an impeached President who feels liberated by his Senate acquittal and has already used presidential power to try to hobble his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, is cause for even greater alarm.
Trump’s extraordinary challenge to states
The President threatened to invoke the Insurrection Act of 1807, which according to some interpretations gives him power to send regular troops into the streets to restore law and order.
“If the city or state refuses to take the actions that are necessary to defend the life and property of their residence, then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them,” Trump said.
The act has been invoked several times to bolster local law enforcement, including during the Detroit riots of 1967 and the Rodney King riots in 1992.
But in Trump’s hands, the act raises the possibility that the commander in chief, protecting his own political interests, could try to send soldiers into states against their will.
It seems like an almost unbelievable prospect, and in Trump’s hands would represent an unprecedented politicization of the military that would be familiar from autocratic nations.
Several governors told CNN on Monday night that Trump has no power under the act to deploy troops without their request.
But the lesson of the last three years is that scenarios that appear unthinkable have a habit of coming true under a President who has little concern for constitutional constraints and believes the power of his office belongs to him.
Earlier, on a day in which he also spoke by phone to a genuine autocratic strongman, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has used his powers against his own people, Trump had berated governors for being weak and in a conference call demanded that they fully utilize the National Guard to “dominate” the streets amid unrest.
While he mentioned Floyd — who died a week ago in the latest example of police brutality against black Americans — in his address, it was only in passing in a speech dedicated to fostering the impression of tough guy leadership. He made no attempt to soothe the anger, fear and alienation stalking the nation. Trump, who has a record of racist rhetoric in and out of office, gave little sign he appreciates that black men and women believe that their country, amid some instances of brutal policing, sees their lives as cheap.
The way that Trump’s impulses often outpace the expectations of traditional political behavior was laid bare by the way the day started with calls for him to make a calming Oval Office address. But his press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, warned that “a national Oval Office address is not going to stop Antifa.”
The comment reflected how the White House is billing the crisis as mostly owing to actions of the loosely affiliated group — and has provided no evidence that it is orchestrating all the protests.
The President’s rhetoric and grandstanding, while they betray an inability to use conventional politics to solve difficult problems, will likely be embraced by his supporters on conservative media and among his base as strong leadership.
It is not hard to see how his propagandists will leap on media criticism of his comments to portray journalists as abetting domestic terrorists who are scornful of the need to protect religion.
Bishop Budde, however, declared that Trump had “sanctioned the use of tear gas by police officers in riot gear to clear the churchyard.
“I am outraged. The President did not pray when he came to St. John’s nor did he acknowledge the agony of our country right now.”