Trump Embraces a New Lost Cause
While the president stands athwart history, yelling Stop, Americans are making it.
As the tear gas clears across America, the nation is facing an unprecedented reckoning about systemic racism and, particularly, the criminal justice system. What makes this moment even more unique, though, is how it’s unfolding not because of presidential leadership—but, almost uniquely in American history—in spite of the president.
There are moments when history unfolds quickly, when America’s foundational quest to strive toward becoming a more just and equitable nation overcomes inertia and major shifts happen in weeks and months after years and decades of delay. In the summer of 2015, in the two weeks after Donald Trump’s escalator ride down to his presidential announcement, history shook: Gay marriage was embraced by the Supreme Court, the White House was lit in a rainbow, the Confederate flag came down from the South Carolina capitol at the urging of its Republican governor, a transgender Olympic decathlete appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair, and the Pentagon ended its ban on transgender troops (that final landmark albeit less permanent than it seemed at the time).
Now, almost exactly five years later, the country faces a new moment of seismic societal change—a moment when years, decades, and centuries of historic injustice are shaking loose and the country appears to be lurching forward. In just the two weeks since disturbing videos appeared online of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on the neck of George Floyd until he died and of a New York birdwatcher’s confrontation in Central Park that involved a white woman, Amy Cooper, faking a 911 call to the police, history has seemed to shift again. Amid a global pandemic that continues to kill thousands of Americans each week and a historic, catastrophic economic shutdown, the protests are already altering the fabric of our country.
In Washington, D.C., 16th Street NW, north of the White House is marked—visible from space—as Black Lives Matter Plaza, the Confederate flag is being banned from Navy and Marine installations across the country and, even more shockingly, from NASCAR events, and historic statues of oppressors are falling around the world, including monuments to Confederate leaders across the south, a segregationist mayor in Philadelphia, a slave-trader in the UK, and Belgium’s brutal, genocidal King Leopold II. Newsrooms, companies, and even readers are wrestling with systemic injustice in a way they never have; in just a matter of hours this week, companies from IBM and Amazon reevaluated their relationship with police and the New York Times unveiled a bestseller list dominated by books about racism.
Nowhere, though, has the effect of the last two weeks been more profound than in policing. After decades of turning to America’s 18,000 police agencies to solve societal problems, from addiction to school violence to the homeless—problems all exacerbated by steady cuts to education and the public safety net—citizens and legislators are embracing cuts to “defund the police” and reinvest in policy alternatives to armed officers with handcuffs and tasers.
Arguably, though, little of this reform would have moved forward as urgently or nationally as it has without the incriminating evidence entered into the record over the last two weeks by America’s police themselves. In city after city over the last two weeks, the police proved scarier and more harmful than the protesters. Some protesters harmed property; many police officers harmed people.
Night by night, city by city, the protests against systemic racism turned into nothing less than a national police riot—a coast-to-coast orgy of street violence unlike anything the nation has seen 1968 when Chicago police beat demonstrators at the Democratic National Convention. In 2020, it’s happening in Minneapolis. Los Angeles. Louisville. St. Louis. Indianapolis. Washington, D.C.
Philadelphia. Buffalo. New York City. In each city, and across the country, civilian videos and news cameras have caught vicious assaults by the very officials paid by taxpayers to serve and protect the public.
The incidents did not seem indicative of a few “bad apples,” as high-ranking officers participated in the beatings in places like Philadelphia and in the Bronx, where NYPD “white-shirts” violated normal procedures and their own patrol guide by actively arresting neutral, clearly marked legal observers.
The constitutional violations piled on top of one another. Over 160 journalists were assaulted by police in less than a week, with many of them targeted as they covered protests protected by the First Amendment in what seemed almost a national strategy to silence and shut down those witnessing the police’s violence..
The police’s own trail of destruction often seemed to outpace the property damage from protesters; in Minneapolis, officers slashed the tires of dozens of parked cars—even whole parking lots—apparently trying to minimize the chances of a driver careening through the protests. Yet at most protests, the only vehicular danger appeared to actually come from the police—officers did drive-by pepper-spraying (multiple times!), an NYPD officer purposefully hit a protester with an open car door, and a California Highway Patrol car left a protester unconscious after driving through a crowd in Pasadena.
The violence often seemed indiscriminate and willful. In Chicago, the city’s police board president said he was hit at least five times by a baton-wielding officer. In San Jose, officers repeatedly shot with nonlethal rounds a peaceful protester who turned out to be the very man who for the last three years has helped run their department’s implicit bias training. In Austin, a peaceful 16-year-old’s skull was fractured by a “non-lethal” beanbag round fired by police.
The lack of accountability—the sense of an occupying army above the law—was typified by the anonymous, badgeless federal officers who ringed the White House last week, a show of force so alarming that it prompted immediate action on Capitol Hill. The National Guardsmen deployed alongside the police were horrified by their brothers in blue; “As a military officer, what I saw was more or less really f---ed up,” one told Politico. “What I saw was just absolutely wrong.” D.C. Guardsman Spec. Isaiah Lynch said, “I felt that we were more protecting the people from the police.”
Altogether, the uniformed brutality seemed so total, so national, so hard-wired into the nation’s cops that a Twitter thread started by a North Carolina defense attorney to track the most egregious examples had topped 444 entries by Tuesday night. A poll by the Wall Street Journal found that by a 2-to-1 margin Americans were more troubled by the behavior of the police than the protesters. A New York state trooper, in tears, told a young black girl who had put up her hands as the officer drove past, “We’re not all bad.” And yet it seems hard to view the outrageous, televised behavior of police in city after city as anything more than a broken system fighting for its life—knowing its way of life was mortally endangered.
Police violence has always, sadly, been on the forefront of forcing national change on civil rights—and police brutality has long been used against people fighting for equal treatment. It was the police in Montgomery, Alabama, who harassed Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., as he organized the first bus boycott there; it was state troopers who met peaceful protesters at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma with brutal beatings; and the contrast of images of nonviolent protesting blacks getting hit by fire hoses and attacked by police dogs and the uniformed thugs of Birmingham Public Safety commissioner Bull Connor helped galvanize public pressure to pass civil rights legislation in the 1960s.
Back in the 1950s and 1960s, the terrible images of systemic police violence amid the segregated South horrified the man occupying the Oval Office: Dwight Eisenhower. Despite being little inclined to engage, he found the Southern insubordination so egregious that he had to act, sending federal troops into places like Little Rock, Arkansas. John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon in turn found themselves compelled to act when injustices grew too obvious and too extreme.
Today, even as an unprecedented movement to reform, defund, and disempower the nation’s police comes to life, President Trump finds himself stuck on the other side of history. He has a years-long record of encouraging police violence, a pattern that continued right into the heart of the protests, as Trump tweeted, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” a comment with such historic violence and racism associated with it that Twitter issued an unprecedented warning about the president’s speech.
The reality is that after years of all but openly celebrating white supremacists (the good people on “both sides,” as he said after the march on Charlottesville) and despite his recent claim that “MAGA loves the black people,” Trump has such low support among black communities that his press secretary bragged this week about his winning 8 percent of their vote.
Nothing about the events of the last two weeks shook his conscience. Instead, every day seemed to take him further afield from the nation he purports to lead. First came his conspiracy-laden attack on the elderly protester shoved by the Buffalo police, arguing in effect that the man deserved his injuries and was an “Antifa Provocateur.” By Wednesday afternoon, Trump—never one to back away from a losing fight—had doubled down on his own Lost Cause, endorsing the US military installations named after Confederate generals and blocking a nascent move by the US Army to rename them for more suitable figures. It was a move so out-of-step with the national sentiment that it recalled the words of William F. Buckley that a conservative is someone who “stands athwart history, yelling Stop.”
That evening, he announced he would restart his fall re-election campaign with a rally on June 19th in Tulsa, Oklahoma—on “Juneteenth,” commemorating the end of slavery in 1865, in a city marking the 100th anniversary of the worst and deadliest race massacre in the country, that destroyed its “Black Wall Street” and left hundreds of blacks dead.
Neither is acceptable, even if the campaign ended up rescheduling the rally for the 20th after public disbelief and outrage at the proposed date and location.
Perhaps the quote most famously to emerge from the presidency of Barack Obama was his refrain, from Theodore Park by way of Martin Luther King, Jr., that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.
After years of harsh and hateful actions by Donald Trump and the GOP that seemed designed to make the moral progress under the Obama administration a distant memory—vindictive, petty, and un-American injustices that included the reinstatement of that ban on transgender serving in the military, a travel ban targeting Muslim, the violent, heart-rending separation of refugee children and their families at the nation’s southern border, and the stoking of white nationalism—the events of the last two weeks offer some hope that the nation’s march to a more just and equitable may not be fully arrested.
In fact, the seismic changes in the country over the last two weeks might herald an overdue reckoning that’s not just in spite of Donald Trump but comes because of Donald Trump, a direct reaction to his intransigence and bile and a rejection of his vision of a country filled with violent government agents turning back the clock to the country’s darkest hours.
His actions over the last week appear so out-of-step with the nation’s fierce mood that not even his own party seems willing to follow him off his Lost Cause cliff: The GOP-controlled Senate Armed Services Committee approved a measure Friday that would rename the Confederate bases, the president’s opinion notwithstanding.
The last two weeks are pointing to a different vision, one that promises that—while the path will never be linear or easy—history will move forward, that the country may grow more just, with or without this president.