“All I had was a match in my hand and I wanted to fight”
— Frederick Douglas Kirkpatrick and Jimmy Collier
This past week, the predictable yet catastrophic failure of Donald Trump’s presidency was illuminated by “fire and fury,” but it was not North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un taking cover but Americans, aghast at images of torched vehicles and burning buildings, a phantasm prompting comparisons to the long, hot summer of 1968. The president appears determined to set a course that will leave the country as broken and empty as the leadership he has failed to provide. That he admittedly takes “no responsibility at all” neither absolves him nor does it change his job description. This is on him.
He continues in the midst of a forever campaign begun well before his actual campaign and will endure far beyond his unexpected and tragic tenure in office, which was, itself, incidental, but provides a great vehicle for self promotion. What we have learned since January bears repeating: Trump’s every move has been dictated by nothing more than his own ambitions, undertaking no initiative without first asking “What’s in it for me?” to the peril of the country.
In the Rose Garden earlier this week, the president claimed to be “an ally of peaceful protesters,” while National Guardsmen and Capitol Police were violently routing a peaceful protest outside the White House, clearing the way for his skin-crawlingly, clueless photo op in front of DC’s St. John’s Episcopal Church, holding a Bible aloft like a golf trophy or third-grade show-and-tell project, proclaiming “It’s a Bible.” The utter superficiality of the moment was stupefying.
In a borderline fascist address to the nation, Trump continued his harassment of state governors that began on morning conference call, saying the were “weak” and would “look like jerks” if they didn’t “dominate” the demonstrators and if they were unwilling to utilize the military to quell the disturbance, he would “Do it for them.” In the familiar monotone he uses for things not specifically about him, he threatened to send soldiers to states he felt were being soft on “terrorism;” cited “One beautiful law,” which defied explanation; and cryptically pledged his support for “Second Amendment rights,” whatever that means.
However, the president’s most consistent characteristic remains his total dishonesty, which he suddenly finds himself needing to vigorously defend. While the nation he’s nearly destroyed is reeling with more than 100,000 pandemic deaths, 40 million workers seeking unemployment benefits, and pitched battles between police and demonstrators exploding coast to coast, his main concern seemed to be social media might limit his ability to lie with impunity.
Suddenly feeling hemmed in by the restriction of the real-time fact checks Twitter has imposed on his daily deceptions, Trump feels it “unfair” he may no longer be able to accuse people of murder without evidence; or depict the election system fraudulent every time a Republican may lose. An opportunist at heart, he doesn’t pass up any chance to intervene if he feels it might benefit him, thereby assuring whatever the situation, it will be far worse than it would have been without his intercession. Chaos is his element and social media, his vehicle. He sees fire and immediately grabs a gas can.
But the fire out there is no longer metaphorical. America is burning, buildings engulfed by flame, a number of cities reminiscent of London during the Blitz but without a Winston Churchill to rally a nation facing a supreme test as was Britain in the early stages of a world war. Through Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain, as well as the Blitz, Churchill’s demeanor and force of personality not only gave Brits the stability to endure, but his political and military decisions were instrumental in forming the “Big Three” alliance with Russia and the United States. Trump initiating anything remotely similar is unimaginable.
In response to the horrifying choking murder of George Floyd by a white police officer and subsequent violence in Minneapolis, Trump’s followed his instincts: invigorating white nationalists by dog whistling “Thugs” and suggesting “You loot ... we shoot,” eventually threatening “vicious dogs” and “ominous weapons;” craven attempts for political advantage via the tragedy, blaming Democrats by attacking Mayor Jacob Frey as “very weak” and without irony, citing a “total lack of leadership.” Frey responded: “Weakness is pointing your finger at somebody else in a time of crisis,” which is the president’s go-to rejoinder in all circumstance.
But while destruction, looting and violence dominated the headlines, the protests were overwhelmingly peaceful, representing a broad coalition of Americans demanding an end to racism and true “Justice for all.” And even though Trump and some of his associates likened what was happening to a war, demanding cops and guardsmen “dominate” the streets and “control the battle space,” there were profound moments of hope that saw some police officers taking a knee with demonstrators and even marching along.
There was even a way Donald Trump might be of help, suggested by Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo, who implored the president, when he had nothing constructive to say, to simply: “keep your mouth shut.”
Walt Amses lives in North Calais.