The sixth night of this is beginning. This feels like the end of America, and this seems emblematic:
As protesters gathered outside the White House Friday night in Washington, DC, President Donald Trump was briefly taken to the underground bunker for a period of time, according to a White House official and a law enforcement source.
The President was there for a little under an hour before being brought upstairs.
A law enforcement source and another source familiar with the matter tell CNN that first lady Melania Trump and their son, Barron, were also taken to the bunker.
His safety, in the White House itself, was the issue. The president had to hide from “the people” – or at least some of them – and he wasn’t happy:
On Saturday, only hours after the protests outside the White House had ended, as Trump declared himself safe, he lashed out at the city’s Democratic mayor and raised the prospect of his supporters gathering in place that night in what would amount to a counter protest.
In a series of tweets, Trump commended the US Secret Service for protecting him inside his fortified mansion Friday evening, saying he couldn’t have felt “more safe” as protesters gathered outside over Floyd’s death. The President suggested that dogs and weaponry were waiting inside the gates.
To be more precise, President Trump tweeted Saturday that “the most vicious dogs, and the most ominous weapons” would have greeted protesters at the White House had they breached the area’s fence on Friday night.
The wording matters. Trump must have been thinking back to Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor, the Commissioner of Public Safety for the city of Birmingham, Alabama, back in the day, and that man’s claim to fame:
Connor enforced legal racial segregation and denied civil rights to black citizens, especially during the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Birmingham campaign of 1963. He became an international symbol of institutional racism. Bull Connor directed the use of fire hoses and police attack dogs against civil rights activists; child protestors were also subject to these attacks. National media broadcast these tactics on television, horrifying much of the country. The outrages served as catalysts for major social and legal change in the Southern United States and contributed to passage by the United States Congress of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Trump would have been in high school at the time, that military-themed prep school for bullies and braggarts that was supposed to straighten them out. He might have remembered the news footage at the time of those big dogs ripping apart those young black kids trapped by the high-pressure fire hoses. Those images must have stuck with him. That would be so cool! Someone needed to tell him that this was not the time to fantasize, in public, about being just like Bull Connor, and someone did:
Numerous advisers both inside and outside the White House have urged the president to tone down his violent rhetoric, which many worry could escalate racial tensions and hurt him politically.
People close to the president, including several senior White House officials, have privately expressed concerns that his incendiary response to the Minneapolis riots will hurt him with two groups that could remove him from office in November: independents and suburban women. These are groups who already tell pollsters they don’t like Trump’s tone, even if they like some of his policies.
One adviser said they saw it as the president’s worst moment since Charlottesville.
A senior White House official, who typically likes it when Trump takes tough law-and-order positions, described the tweet as “stupid.”
That official was referring to the “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” tweet, but they’re all pretty much alike now.
This isn’t working. The New York Times’ Peter Baker and Maggie Haberman tell the Friday night story this way:
Inside the White House, the mood was bristling with tension. Hundreds of protesters were gathering outside the gates, shouting curses at President Trump and in some cases throwing bricks and bottles. Nervous for his safety, Secret Service agents abruptly rushed the president to the underground bunker used in the past during terrorist attacks.
The scene on Friday night, described by a person with firsthand knowledge, added to the sense of unease at the White House as demonstrations spread after the brutal death of a black man in police custody under a white officer’s knee. While in the end officials said they were never really in danger, Mr. Trump and his family have been rattled by protests that turned violent three nights in a row near the Executive Mansion.
Donald Trump didn’t expect this? What did he expect? No one will ever know. He won’t say a thing:
Mr. Trump spent Sunday out of sight, even as some of his campaign advisers were recommending that he deliver a nationally televised address before another night of possible violence. The building was even emptier than usual as some White House officials planning to work were told not to come in case of renewed unrest.
By nightfall on Sunday, protesters had returned to vicinity of the White House in force, and sirens wailed through much of the downtown Washington as the police rushed to the scene to reinforce the Secret Service and National Guard.
He’ll wait this out, because this isn’t his problem:
Mr. Trump remained cloistered inside, periodically sending out Twitter messages like “LAW & ORDER!”
While some aides urged him to keep off Twitter, Mr. Trump could not resist blasting out a string of messages through the day berating Democrats for not being tough enough and attributing the turmoil to radical leftists.
“Get tough Democrat Mayors and Governors,” he wrote.
Referring to his presumptive Democratic presidential opponent, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., he added: “These people are ANARCHISTS. Call in our National Guard NOW. The World is watching and laughing at you and Sleepy Joe. Is this what America wants? NO!!!”
This was odd. This was the Democrats’ problem, theirs alone. And there were those far left anti-fascist folks, causing all the problems. He and all Real Americans are pro-fascist of course. Fascism is good! No, wait… oh, never mind. But really, Joe Biden should fix this now! The world is laughing at Biden for not fixing this right now! What a crappy president Biden is! No, wait… oh, never mind. But of course Trump will do something:
The president said his administration “will be designating ANTIFA as a Terrorist Organization,” referring to the shorthand for “anti-fascist.” But Antifa is a movement of activists who dress in black and call themselves anarchists, not an organization with a clear structure that can be penalized under law. Moreover, American law applies terrorist designations to foreign entities, not domestic groups.
By targeting Antifa, however, Mr. Trump effectively paints all the protests with the brush of violent radicalism without addressing the underlying conditions that have driven many of the people who have taken to the streets.
Those people are convenient, but there are those other guys:
Far-right extremists are showing up, with guns, to the protests against police brutality that have exploded across the country. Others are egging on the violence from behind their computers, urging followers to carry out acts of violence against black protesters with the goal of sparking a “race war.”
Their presence makes an uneasy addition to the escalating unrest, which was triggered by the death of George Floyd, a black man who was choked to death by a white Minneapolis police officer earlier this week. But there’s a range of motivations that’s driving far-right interest toward the protests, which are being led by community members and Black Lives Matter, and bolstered by antifascists.
These are the far-right guys whose current hero is Dylan Roof – that guy gunned down nine elderly and quite friendly black folks at the South Carolina church five years ago – his heroic attempt to kick off a race war. The massive race war will finally settle things in America once and for all:
The “boogaloo” is code for impending civil war or violent confrontation with law enforcement, and that’s what they’re hoping to get out of the protests. Their main reason for being there is their antipathy toward law enforcement, and so they’re trying to position themselves as allies of Black Lives Matter protesters.
Most of law enforcement is more worried about them, or the Russians stirring the pot, but Baker and Haberman worry about Trump:
While Mr. Trump has been a focus of anger, particularly in the crowds in Washington, aides repeatedly have tried to explain to him that the protests were not only about him, but about broader, systemic issues related to race, according to several people familiar with the discussions. Privately, Mr. Trump’s advisers complained about his tweets, acknowledging that they were pouring fuel on an already incendiary situation.
“Those are not constructive tweets, without any question,” Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, the only black Republican in the Senate, said in an interview on Fox News Sunday.
That may be so, but understatement is useless in these matters, because this is about November:
Dan Eberhart, a Republican donor and supporter of Mr. Trump, said the president, with election looming in five months, is focused on catering to his core supporters rather than the nation at large. “Trump is far more divisive than past presidents,” Mr. Eberhart said. “His strength is stirring up his base, not calming the waters.”
Robert O’Brien, the president’s national security adviser, said the president would continue “to take a strong stand for law and order” even as he understood the anger over Mr. Floyd’s death.
“We want peaceful protesters who have real concerns about brutality and racism. They need to be able to go to the city hall. They need to be able to petition their government and let their voices be heard,” Mr. O’Brien said on State of the Union on CNN.
But they shouldn’t make trouble. Do that and they die. That’s what people want to hear, in spite of this sort of thing:
“What I’d like to hear from the president is leadership,” Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms of Atlanta said on Meet the Press. “And I would like to hear a genuine care and concern for our communities and where we are with race relations in America.”
But that might be bad politics:
Some officials were urging that Mr. Trump hold events intended to show black voters enraged over the latest videotaped act of brutality that he heard their views. A group of advisers discussed plans for a series of “listening” events. But others have counseled that the president should take a hard line, one that is not quite as aggressive as his tweets but that sends a message to business owners whose property has been destroyed that he is willing to defend them.
That’s the gamble. Property is more important than any sense of community, and more important than a few black lives. No one will ever take your property again. Or, on the other hand, no one should die for your current inventory specialty plumbing fixtures. Property can be replaced, but life cannot – dead is dead. And community is rather useful – unless it isn’t because that community might also include “the wrong sort” of people.
Which will it be? Look back in time:
Some in the president’s circle see the escalations as a political boon, much in the way Richard M. Nixon won the presidency on a law-and-order platform after the 1968 riots. One adviser to Mr. Trump, who insisted on anonymity to describe private conversations, said images of widespread destruction across the country could be helpful to the law-and-order message that Mr. Trump has tried to project since his 2016 campaign.
The adviser said that it could particularly appeal to older women at a time when Mr. Trump’s support among seniors has eroded amid the coronavirus pandemic, which has disproportionately affected them. The risk, this adviser added, is that people are worn out by the president’s behavior.
But still, if the nation is still burning, and if that can be encouraged and extended and made even worse, then frail old white women will be frightened that the niggers are coming, and will vote for Trump, to save property and honor and whatnot. That’s the theory.
But as for that bunker, there’s this:
Vice President Dick Cheney was brought to the bunker on Sept. 11, 2001, when the authorities feared one of the planes hijacked by Al Qaeda was heading toward the White House. President George W. Bush, who was out of town until that evening, was rushed there later after a false alarm of another plane threat.
The bunker has not been used much, if at all, since those early days of the war on terrorism, but it has been hardened to withstand the force of a passenger jet crashing into the mansion above. The president and his family were rattled by their experience on Friday night, according to several advisers.
It seems that this was worse than a 767 smashing into the White House:
Protesters shouted “no justice, no peace,” and “black lives matter” as well as a chant targeting Mr. Trump with an expletive while a phalanx of camouflage-wearing troops marched through Lafayette Square to reinforce the police lines. Crowds surged toward the riot troops, and some threw objects. Fires were set in a dumpster and a sport-utility vehicle, while glass windows were shattered at Washington icons like the Hay Adams Hotel and the Oval Room restaurant.
Graffiti was spray-painted for blocks, including on the historic Decatur House a block from the White House: “Why do we have to keep telling you black lives matter?”
That’s a good question. David Gergen, a White House adviser to four presidents and a graduate of Harvard Law School and a professor of public service at the Harvard Kennedy School, where he founded the Center for Public Leadership, as a few things to say about our current leader:
President Donald Trump took time, of course, to send out a stream of new, controversial tweets. He called protesters in Minneapolis “thugs” and repeated a racist line from a Miami police chief years ago – “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” He even retweeted a video in which a supporter says, “The only good Democrat is a dead Democrat.”
But other than a brief tweet in the midst of another storm, Trump remained silent on the most sensitive issue of his presidency: the pandemic that is killing so many older Americans and people of color living near the edge. Understandably, with the rash of other news, the press is moving on. But we should pause for one more moment to recognize how sad and sharp a departure his silence is from past traditions of the presidency.
It wasn’t always like this:
After George Washington was sworn as commander in chief of the Continental Army, Ethan Allen’s younger brother, Levi, wrote to Washington in 1776 that he had become “Our political Father and head of a Great People.” Shortly thereafter, Washington was frequently referred to as “Father of Our Country.” As he steered us through war, the constitutional convention, and two terms as President, the phrase caught on. He wasn’t much of a speaker – he thought his deeds spoke for him – but he was a leader of such strong character and rock-solid integrity that he became the gold standard of the presidency.
Lincoln began his presidency during great uncertainty about his leadership. He won the election of 1860 with the smallest plurality ever (39%), and his military experience was virtually nil. But over time, he kindled a special relationship with Union soldiers, many of whom called him “Father Abraham.” Historians say his homespun ways, common manner and kindly empathy converted them. In his re-election, soldiers were his greatest supporters.
Franklin Roosevelt was known to be self-involved in his early years, but his struggles with polio transformed him into a caring, compassionate leader. Working families and many people of color thought they had a friend in the White House. So attached did his followers become that when he gave a fireside chat on a summer evening, you could walk down the streets of Baltimore and hear every word as families sat in their living room by a radio.
Historians generally agree that Washington, Lincoln and FDR were our greatest presidents. All three are remembered for their empathy and steadfastness in caring for the lives of average Americans.
That’s not Trump, a man unlike even recent presidents:
I remember with absolute clarity the Challenger disaster in 1986. One saw the plumes of the rising space craft against a bright blue sky – and then that horrific explosion as it instantly disappeared. Ronald Reagan was one of the few presidents in our history who expressed our emotions so well in a moment of shock and mourning. For hour upon hour, the networks had replayed the explosion, and it seemed so meaningless. But then Reagan used his speech to replace that picture in our minds with a different one: the astronauts waving goodbye. They became our heroes, especially as Reagan (drawing upon speechwriter Peggy Noonan) closed with lines from a World War II poem: “We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.'”
One thinks, too, of Bill Clinton traveling to Oklahoma City after the bombing there of a federal building in 1995. Clinton, like Reagan, was at his best when he captured tangled emotions and gave meaning to deaths of some of our finest citizens. He not only consoled families in private but moved the nation when he mourned them publicly. As I recall, that’s when presidents were first called “Mourners in Chief” – a phrase that has been applied repeatedly to presidents since. (Not coincidentally, Clinton’s speech of mourning in Oklahoma City is widely credited with resurrecting his presidency, then in the doldrums.)
One remembers, too, George W. Bush standing on the top of a crushed police car in the rubble of the World Trade Center bombing. When a first responder said he couldn’t hear the President, Bush responded through his bullhorn: “I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.”
One also remembers Barack Obama flying again and again to speak at gravesites where young children or church parishioners were being buried, victims gunned down in a gun-obsessed nation. Thinking about the mass shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Church in Charleston, one’s mind returns to the image of the President of the United States leading a memorial service, singing “Amazing Grace.”
That’s not Trump either:
Reagan, Clinton, Bush, Obama – two Republicans, two Democrats – served as our “Mourners in Chief.” All four bound us together for a few moments, and we remembered who we are and who we can be.
Trump won’t speak to that. That’s not his problem. Think of Nixon exploiting the 1968 riots for his own ends. This may be 1968 again. That’s what Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton, suggests in this item:
Americans are waking up to a new nightmare. On top of a pandemic that has ravaged the country, killed more than 100,000 people so far and shut down much of our economy, there are now mass protests in response to the death of George Floyd, a black man who pleaded, “I can’t breathe,” as a white police officer kneeled on his neck. With President Donald Trump sending out tweets threatening violence against looters and police arresting reporters on air, it’s hard for Baby Boomers not to feel like this is 1968 all over again.
That was a bad year:
It was a difficult time then. The nation was stuck in the quagmire of Vietnam, with hundreds of thousands of troops fighting for their lives in a useless conflict. Meanwhile, every day seemed to bring more news of turbulence at home as the anti-war movement brought ongoing clashes between activists and police. The nation was still reeling from a series of devastating riots the year before, stemming from the police harassment of African Americans in Newark, New Jersey, and Detroit, Michigan.
Two of the nation’s most influential public figures, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, were tragically assassinated. President Lyndon Johnson announced on March 31, 1968, that he would not run for reelection, while the Democratic National Convention in Chicago disintegrated into violent confrontations between protesters and Mayor Richard Daley’s police.
With Alabama’s segregationist governor, George Wallace, running a third-party campaign that appealed to white ethnic anger in response to civil rights and the counterculture, Republican Richard Nixon won the presidency by promising the country he would restore “law and order” on the streets.
Boomers remember. And they shouldn’t be smug:
Today’s situation is even worse. Covid-19 has killed nearly twice as many Americans than the 58,000 who died in almost a decade of fighting in Vietnam. Not only has Covid-19 wreaked immense havoc on the home front, it has imperiled core civic institutions, like schools and houses of worship, and forced us to live apart from friends and family. It’s unclear how long the virus will continue to cause severe illness and death. What is clear is that we will be forced to remake ourselves in profound ways.
Now add this:
We have a President who, unlike either Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon, doesn’t seem to care about governance. Our commander-in-chief is far less stable than either of these men and seems willing to say and do whatever is on his mind. He dismisses his own experts and turns to far-right media personalities for counsel. We’ve seen how he willfully spreads disinformation about Covid-19 and hesitates to bring the full power of the federal government to help us return to normal. Now he is tweeting out messages that instigate violence. As some cities burn, his response is to throw fuel on the fire.
Okay, Boomer. You never faced this:
Trump thrives in a partisan world that is in many ways more dysfunctional than what we saw in 1968. Whereas the tensions of that year revolved around specific issues, like the war and civil rights, we now live in a partisan world where our institutions perpetuate constant red-blue divisions over almost every issue, no matter how large or small they might be. Everything – even wearing masks to prevent a contagious, potentially deadly disease from spreading – instantly becomes part of this perpetual political struggle, making the resolution to key public questions almost impossible to achieve.
So here we are:
The unrest that we have seen this week has not been nearly as devastating as what happened in 1967, when Detroit and Newark were devastated, both in loss of life and property. But there are ways our current situation is even more desolate. Despite the passage of more than 50 years, it feels like little progress has been made. In 1967, LBJ set up the Kerner Commission, which documented police violence against African Americans and found that racism and police brutality were the primary causes in the surge in riots. The report, released in 1968, famously said, “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal.”
Since then, the issue of criminal justice and racism has never gone away…
For those of us who study the 1960s or lived through those troubled times, it’s hard to imagine things could be worse. But they are.
So, who’s in charge now? What have we done?