“Appearance rules the world.” That’s what Friedrich Schiller said. He would know. He was buddies with elaborately dramatic Goethe, and Beethoven’s setting of Schiller’s poem “An die Freude” (Ode to Joy) in the final movement of his Ninth Symphony always brings down the house. It brought down the Berlin Wall. It was Christmas 1989. Leonard Bernstein conducted that movement of the Ninth in what had been East Berlin – with Freiheit (Freedom) replacing Freude (Joy) – to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall. The world cheered. Bernstein knew how to put on a show. Schiller knew how to put on a show. Appearance does rule the world.
A military show of force on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington caused a social-media uproar Tuesday night.
Dozens of members of the District of Columbia National Guard, many of them masked, lined the steps of the iconic monument as hundreds of demonstrators protested peacefully below. The protest dispersed as the city’s curfew set in.
The show of force came after President Donald Trump on Tuesday again urged governors to call in National Guard troops to quell nationwide protests that have often turned violent, after threatening Monday night to deploy military forces. On Monday, federal police aggressively cleared a peaceful crowd of protesters in front of the White House, so Trump could have a photo op at an historic church across the street, a move condemned Tuesday by many congressional Democrats but few Republicans.
But the photograph that had endlessly bounced around the world was the problem:
The striking optics of soldiers occupying the space honoring President Abraham Lincoln, and where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, disturbed many.
Philip Kennicott is the art and architecture critic at the Washington Post and wonders how this happened:
Who in the Pentagon, or the leadership of the National Guard of the District of Columbia, thought this was a good look? Who thought what America needs now is a viral image of the American military in camouflage and body armor occupying a memorial that symbolizes the hope of reconciliation, that has drawn to its steps Marian Anderson to sing for a mixed-race crowd during a time of segregation and Martin Luther King to proclaim “I have a dream,” and millions of nameless souls, of all races, who believe there is some meaning in words like “the better angels of our nature”?
But there it was:
The photo showed troops standing resolutely, perhaps provocatively, on the memorial’s wide and inviting steps, as if they owned it. To many, it symbolized the militarization of Washington, of our government and country, and the terrifying dissolution of old boundaries between partisan politics and the independent, professional military.
A spokesman for the D.C. National Guard, Senior Master Sgt. Craig Clapper, said the troops seen there were called in to protect the memorial after some minor damage over the weekend, and in response to potential new threats. The D.C. National Guard serves under the authority of the secretary of the Army, and the order to protect the memorial is ongoing. But despite earlier closure of the memorial and the appearance that it is being occupied by soldiers, said Clapper, the public still has access, and the soldiers were not carrying riot shields.
Sorry, but that wasn’t good enough:
It was a chilling image nonetheless, and it speaks to the difficult position the military is now in, and how carefully it must think about the nuance and optics of its behavior.
Throughout the crisis of the past week, there have been images, scattered but reassuring, of National Guard troops and some law enforcement officers joining in expressions of common purpose with protesters, speaking respectfully, even taking a knee with people who have flocked to the streets to protest police brutality and George Floyd’s death under the knee of a white police officer in Minneapolis on May 25.
But there have been far more disturbing images, including a chaotic and violent assault on peaceful protesters, by police and Guard troops on Monday evening, an assault ordered before a curfew expired, to clear a public park with rubber bullets, smoke canisters and noxious chemicals so that the president could traverse it, with a Bible, for a photo op at a historic District church.
The image of troops arrayed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial only added to the sense of crisis and civil disintegration.
And that changes everything:
No matter their intent and purpose, the D.C. Guard looked not like protecting sentinels, but possessive custodians. Ultimately, their orders came from the president, and so it is inevitable that many people will see their presence there not as protective, but aggressive, as if they are facing off with the city and its residents, whom they are meant to serve.
It seems that the city and its residents are now the enemy:
Now we have an image that suggests that raw, naked power – old-guard, old-style, patriarchal military power – has taken possession of something that is already a fragile cultural symbol. To many people looking at this photograph, it seemed to say, “They own it,” not us, not we, not the people.
And that raises an even deeper fear, one that recalls memories of the National Guard at Kent State and atrocities committed by U.S. troops in its wars overseas, in Vietnam, Korea, Afghanistan and Iraq. It exacerbates a fear that Washingtonians feel keenly, as more troops pour in, military hardware rattles through the streets, helicopters shatter the calm of night, and as the president’s bellicose rhetoric continues to spew like a fire hose.
It’s a simple fear, and a question every soldier, no matter his or her rank, must answer: If the president tells you to shoot us, will you do it?
One photograph did all that. Appearance rules the world, and Philip Rucker and Ashley Parker note this:
The security perimeter around the White House keeps expanding. Tall black fencing is going up seemingly by the hour. Armed guards and sharpshooters and combat troops are omnipresent.
In the 72 hours since Monday’s melee at Lafayette Square, the White House has been transformed into a veritable fortress – the physical manifestation of President Trump’s vision of law-and-order “domination” over the millions of Americans who have taken to the streets to protest racial injustice.
The White House is now so heavily fortified that it resembles the monarchical palaces or authoritarian compounds of regimes in faraway lands – strikingly incongruous with the historic role of the executive mansion at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, which since its cornerstone was laid in 1792 has been known as the People’s House and celebrated as an accessible symbol of American democracy.
It can no longer be that:
This week’s security measures follow nighttime demonstrations just outside the campus gates last weekend that turned violent. White House officials stressed that Trump was not involved in the decision to beef up security or to increase the fencing around the compound’s perimeter, with one senior administration official saying that the precautions are not unique to the Trump administration.
Nevertheless, the resulting picture is both jarring and distinctly political… His supporters see a projection of absolute strength, a leader controlling the streets to protect his people. His critics see a wannabe dictator and a president hiding from his own citizenry.
Those are the two views:
Trump – who has long gravitated toward strongman leaders abroad and has sought to bathe himself in military iconography – likes the images of police and troops enforcing order, believing they symbolize his toughness and communicate that his crackdown has largely controlled unrest in the streets of Washington, according to White House officials.
“Washington is in great shape,” Trump said Wednesday in a Fox News Radio interview. “I jokingly said, a little bit jokingly, maybe, it’s one of the safest places on earth. And we had no problem at all last night. We had substantial dominant force and it – we have to have a dominant force. Maybe it doesn’t sound good to say it, but you have to have a dominant force. We need law and order.”
Well, maybe not:
Deborah Berke, dean of the Yale School of Architecture, said the White House barricaded as if it were a military base, with multiple layers of black fencing surrounding the limestone Georgian structure, conveys the opposite message and represents a physical violation of democracy.
“I think the need to fortify your house – and it’s not his house; it’s our house – shows weakness,” she said. “The president of the United States should not feel threatened by his or her own citizens.”
And that’s a bad look:
The campaign of former vice president Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, says Trump’s desire to project toughness will not work with many voters.
“Firing tear gas and shooting rubber bullets at peaceful demonstrators outside the People’s House doesn’t make anyone safer or Donald Trump seem tougher, and it certainly doesn’t address the systemic racism and inequality that has plagued our country for generations,” Biden spokesman T. J. Ducklo wrote in an email.
And sooner or later the Biden team will use this against Trump:
Past presidents have resisted security suggestions at and around the White House that could stoke fears that the government was under threat.
Following the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt balked at efforts to fortify the White House, which at the time had been open to casual visitors strolling the grounds during the day, according to historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.
Fearful about a bombing attack, the Secret Service wanted Roosevelt to cover skylights with sand, to camouflage the White House, to paint the windows black, to stand up machine-gun emplacements and to build a bomb shelter, Goodwin said.
“FDR rejected most of these recommendations, though he finally agreed, ‘with not a little annoyance,’ to the construction of a shelter in the Treasury Department,” Goodwin said in an email.
Put that in a campaign ad and Trump is toast, but that may not matter. Appearance is everything. Imagine shock troops out busting heads everywhere, intimidating people into shutting up and staying home, and no one knowing who they are. They could be the government, but they might not be. Either way, no one can object to any of this. To whom would one object? There no one. And that’s happening now:
The Trump administration’s aggressive deployment of officers donning riot gear with no identifiable markings has increased tensions with protesters, raised the specter of a “secret police” force and prompted Speaker Nancy Pelosi to demand that President Trump identify the federal forces he has put on the streets of the capital.
Demonstrators in downtown Washington say federal officers in generic riot gear have refused to identify themselves or display identifying features, and the deployment of federal law enforcement is supposed to get even larger this weekend.
This will not end well:
Congressional Democrats say the administration’s use of ambiguous tactical teams is infringing on the rights of the protesters. Senators Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, and Christopher S. Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, introduced legislation mandating that law enforcement officers, and members of the armed forces, identify themselves and their agency.
In a letter to Mr. Trump on Thursday, Ms. Pelosi asked for details identifying the law enforcement and military agencies that had been deployed across the capital to police the protests.
“The practice of officers operating with full anonymity undermines accountability, ignites government distrust and suspicion, and is counter to the principle of procedural justice and legitimacy during this precarious moment in our nation’s history,” Ms. Pelosi wrote.
But that may be the whole idea:
The question over the federal law enforcement practices comes as Attorney General William P. Barr has flooded Washington with agents from the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Department of Homeland Security and the Bureau of Prisons – an agency that House Democrats said in a letter to Mr. Barr was responsible for sending the unidentifiable officers.
Mr. Barr on Wednesday night further empowered those teams from the Bureau of Prisons with the authority to make arrests at the demonstrations.
They can do anything now, really, and no one will know what hit them, because no one will know who they are or where they came from or who controls them, if anyone does. That’ll shut up these damned protesters, although this might be a bad look:
“The United States would normally condemn this tactic if used by dictators of other countries, and its use here directly threatens our democracy,” Mr. Murphy said. “Americans have a right to know who is patrolling their streets, and to have recourse if their massive power is misused.”
Trump and Barr must have grinned when Murphy said that. Those who hate America will have no recourse, and that’s new and very cool:
Historically, local police departments have required their officers to have some sort of identification on their uniforms, according to Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a research organization. The Justice Department criticized the Police Department in Ferguson, Mo., six years ago for not forcing officers to display signs identifying their department. But lawyers have found that state and federal laws do little to require that law enforcement agencies identify themselves to the public.
There was a loophole. Barr walked through it, so all that’s left is whining:
Peter Donald, a former assistant commissioner of the New York Police Department who also worked for the FBI, said it was crucial that law enforcement “use every opportunity” to build meaningful relationships with the public. “Certainly knowing who you’re talking to is an important piece of that,” he said.
Perhaps so, but having the general population fear you, while not knowing who you are and who you report to, and why, while not knowing what force you have been authorized to use, and under what circumstances, is a meaningful relationship with the public too. It’s called vague but deadly threat on one side and terror mixed with panic on the other. That works.
But this might stop working. David Sanger and Helene Cooper see this:
For the first three years of President Trump’s time in office, his blunt-force view of the military was confined to threatening American adversaries: “fire and fury” if North Korea challenged American troops. A warning that he would “shoot down and destroy” Iranian forces in the Persian Gulf. Billions spent to rejuvenate a nuclear arsenal he viewed as the ultimate source of American power.
His generals and admirals accepted a commander in chief with what they diplomatically dismissed as a “unique style” – and they welcomed the increase in military spending. His chief diplomats, while embarrassed, saw some utility in trying to force adversaries to the table.
Now, that tolerance has frayed. Mr. Trump’s threat to use the 1807 Insurrection Act to send active-duty troops on American soil against protesters has laid bare the chasm in the national security community that was forming even when he ran for office in 2016.
That is, no one should have been surprised:
Back then it was only a limited group of “Never Trumpers” – establishment Republican national security professionals repelled by Mr. Trump’s description of how American power should be wielded around the world – who wrote and spoke of the dangers. He “lacks the character, values and experience” to be president, they wrote, and “would put at risk our country’s national security.”
This week, it was his former defense secretary, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a range of other retired senior officers who were saying in public what they previously said only in private: that the risk lies in the fact that the president regards the military, which historically has prized its nonpartisan, apolitical role in society, as just another political force to be massed to his advantage.
That’s how it had always been. The military had that appearance, and appearance rules the world, and Trump won’t ruin this too:
“There is a thin line between the military’s tolerance for questionable partisan moves over the past three years and the point where these become intolerable for an apolitical military,” said Douglas E. Lute, a retired three-star Army general who coordinated Afghanistan and Pakistan operations on the National Security Council for Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and later became the American ambassador to NATO. “Relatively minor episodes have accumulated imperceptibly, but we are now at a point of where real damage is being done.”
Mr. Trump’s walk to a church near the White House on Monday, with Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark A. Milley, in tow, may have been the moment everything shifted, Mr. Lute said.
“As that team walked across Lafayette Park with the president,” after the heavy-handed clearing of a peaceful demonstration, he said, “they crossed that line.”
The military is fed up with this guy, and they’re telling him so, but at least the president is backing down:
By Thursday afternoon, there was only an uneasy truce, as Mr. Trump agreed to begin sending home from the Washington region some of the 1,600 active-duty troops – ordered from Fort Bragg, N.C., and Fort Drum, N.Y., to quell protests – that defense officials never wanted here in the first place.
That’s okay. Trump decided this was not the right time or the right place to fight the entire foolish military of the United States and wipe it out, entirely, and then let Jared Kushner run things. That would be a bad look. Appearances matter. That could wait, and the military heaved a sigh of relief:
One general officer, speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid punishment from his superiors, said on Thursday that he was hoping to make it through another day without having to cite his constitutional obligations to decline an illegal order. He said he would not be surprised if he faced such a dilemma in the coming weeks.
Former top officers were able to speak more freely.
“Right now, the last thing the country needs – and, frankly, the U.S. military needs – is the appearance of U.S. soldiers carrying out the president’s intent by descending on American citizens,” John R. Allen, a retired four-star Marine general, wrote in Foreign Policy. “This could wreck the high regard Americans have for their military, and much more.”
And there’s enough trouble already:
Military officials’ fears seemed to be borne out during the protests this week in Washington, where by Wednesday night those in uniform facing the peaceful crowd were no longer police officers or Secret Service but National Guard soldiers in camouflage. They stood on 16th Street near the White House in front of two Army transport trucks. Although they were not active-duty military troops, to the protesters they looked like them.
The crowd hurled obscenities and invective. “Fascists!” one person screamed. “Brainwashed!” another yelled.
“We don’t need military artillery to control a city,” Arianna Evans, 23, of Bowie, Md., said in a later interview. “We just don’t, not unless it’s goddamn Yemen.”
And this has gone far enough:
Senior Pentagon leaders worry that a militarized and heavy-handed response to the protests, Mr. Trump’s stated wish, will turn the American public against the troops, like what happened in the waning years of the Vietnam War, when National Guard troops in combat fatigues battled antiwar protesters at Kent State. The retired Sgt. Alan Kraus, a combat infantryman in Vietnam in 1970 and 1971, said in a telephone interview that when he returned home from Vietnam, he hung up his uniform and never put it back on, lest he become the target of protesters in the street.
“The purpose of the military is to train soldiers to treat the enemy as inferior human beings or not human beings at all because that makes them easier to kill,” Sergeant Kraus said, adding that it was very hard to “unlearn” all of that training when the military is dealing with civilians.
And that happened again:
For Mr. Trump, who avoided the risk of being drafted into the Vietnam War with a diagnosis of bone spurs, acceptance by the Pentagon has been key – to him and to his base. He celebrated the hiring of Gen. Jim Mattis as his first defense secretary, and then he went looking for other generals: Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, his first national security adviser; Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, his second national security adviser; and Gen. John F. Kelly, his second chief of staff.
None of those relationships ended well. But it was Mr. Mattis’ decision to break his long silence, and to declare that Mr. Trump was “the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people – does not even pretend to try,” that broke the dam.
It broke. Two Republicans in the Senate broke with Trump – Lisa Murkowski and Mitt Romney. They both said Mattis was right, and then the next guy up extended what Mattis said:
Adm. Mike Mullen, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, denounced the use of the military to support the political acts of a president who had “laid bare his disdain for the rights of peaceful protest in this country.”
“The United States has a long and, to be fair, sometimes troubled history of using the armed forces to enforce domestic laws,” Admiral Mullen wrote in The Atlantic. “The issue for us today is not whether this authority exists, but whether it will be wisely administered.”
For many of these officers, the question was whether Mr. Trump was aware of that history. The Declaration of Independence, several noted, dwelled on the complaints that the King of England “kept among us, in times of peace, standing armies without the consent of our legislatures,” and tried to “render the military independent of and superior to the civil power.”
That is pretty close to what Mr. Trump did on Monday night when he declared that General Milley was “in charge” of what was happening in the streets.
It is not a role that most in his military want.
But no one wants their current roles. Trump wants to appear a strong man and also a necessarily brutal ruling strongman. He held up that Bible and scowled at the world, but appearance rules the world. Everyone saw him sneer. He won’t be ruling the world much longer.