Donald Trump could not make this his day. This was a day for heroes, and for one particular hero from the past, and for an event to which Donald Trump was not invited, and to which he would have turned down the invitation anyway. He didn’t like the guy. That guy had been disrespectful. He had not been awed by Donald Trump. He had never even tried to fake being awed by Donald Trump. And now he was dead. Who cares? Donald Trump didn’t care. Donald Trump was the odd man out. Others cared. History cared. This was a big deal, and quite a scene in Atlanta:
Three former presidents and dozens of other dignitaries were drawn to Ebenezer Baptist Church on Thursday to bid farewell to John Lewis, a giant of Congress and the civil rights era whose courageous protests guaranteed him a place in American history. But even as the funeral looked back over Mr. Lewis’s long life, it also focused very much on the tumultuous state of affairs in the country today.
The most pointed eulogy came from former President Barack Obama, who issued a blistering critique of the Trump administration, the brutality of police officers toward Black people and efforts to limit the right to vote that Mr. Lewis had shed his blood to secure.
The political tone of the ceremony came as little surprise. Mr. Lewis, who died July 17 at the age of 80 after a battle with pancreatic cancer, had spent more than three decades in Congress as a thorn in the side of Republican administrations. And he and President Trump had traded public slights since before Mr. Trump took office.
Lewis was all about the vote. He had put his life on the line since the mid-sixties to find a way that would guarantee that everyone who had the right to vote actually could vote. Blacks should not be disenfranchised by trickery or intimidation – and he had won. The House will revise the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and rename it the John Lewis Voting Rights Act – but that revision and renewal will never pass the Republican Senate, and if the Democrats flip the Senate this fall, and pass the thing too, Trump has vowed to veto it. It’s unnecessary. Why is everyone always picking on good whites as if they’re evil? They never did anyone any harm.
Is that so? Everyone knows what’s been happening. Barack Obama knows. He let it rip:
Mr. Obama compared Mr. Lewis to an Old Testament prophet and credited him with directly paving the way for the nation’s first Black president. He also took aim at the forces that he said were working against the equality for Black Americans and other oppressed people that Mr. Lewis had spent a lifetime championing.
“Bull Connor may be gone,” Mr. Obama said, referring to the 1960s-era public safety commissioner of Birmingham, Ala., who turned fire hoses and dogs on civil rights protesters. “But today, we witness, with our own eyes, police officers kneeling on the necks of Black Americans.”
George Wallace, the Alabama governor who endorsed segregation and used racist language, may also be gone, Mr. Obama continued. “But we can witness our federal government sending agents to use tear gas and batons against peaceful demonstrators.”
And while insuperable poll tests for Black people may be a thing of the past, Mr. Obama said, “Even as we sit here, there are those in power who are doing their darnedest to discourage people from voting by closing polling locations, and targeting minorities and students with restrictive ID laws, and attacking our voting rights with surgical precision.”
The critique elicited a torrent of applause from the invitation-only audience at Ebenezer Baptist Church, the famed institution that Mr. Lewis attended and where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Mr. Lewis’s mentor and ally, once preached.
Do these people have to fight those same battles again, now? Yes, of course they do. That’s what they’ve been doing for months now. They don’t mind. It’s the right thing to do. Bring it on. They owe it to John Lewis. They owe it to America.
That was the general idea, and the Washington Post’s Marc Fisher adds the specifics:
Three presidents spoke in poetry, paying tribute to a fallen hero who believed – often against evidence to the contrary, including the cracking of his skull by state troopers – that America was good, its people driven by love to do right by one another.
One president, the current commander in chief, did not attend the funeral of Rep. John Lewis but instead spoke of dark forces in the country and suggested that the United States not hold its next presidential election on time.
That was the contrast. Everyone should be allowed to vote, and then vote! No, not right now, in fact, maybe no one should vote until this virus is gone in a year or two, or more.
It was Donald Trump against the world:
Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton put on masks and traveled to Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church to say goodbye to a civil rights leader and Democratic House member who preached change, progress and hope. Donald Trump stayed home, spending the morning watching TV and tweeting, holding fast to his program of conflict, nostalgia and restoration.
Not one of the three former presidents mentioned his absent successor, yet each seemed to have him very much in mind:
“John Lewis always looked outward, not inward,” Bush said.
Clinton said that Lewis “was here on a mission that was bigger than personal ambition.”
And Obama said of Lewis that “he believed in us even when we don’t believe in ourselves.” A few minutes later, to hit that note even harder, Obama said the very same words, one more time.
The three former presidents deployed classic rhetoric – quotations from Scripture, powerful silences and sweet allusions to Lewis’s grace and humility – to describe how he earned a respect, and therefore a power, for which others shout in vain.
Trump demands respect. When he doesn’t get respect he sneers and mocks those who refuse to acknowledge his awesomeness. Lewis made no such demands, ever. He didn’t ask for respect. He really didn’t care. He did the right thing. That is how one earns respect.
Someone should mention that to Trump. He’s in trouble, and he knows it. Fisher thinks he got desperate:
In the morning, after his own administration reported discouraging data showing that the economy had tanked in recent months, contracting by a third on an annualized basis because the country had failed to get a handle on the coronavirus, the president scrambled to change the subject. Sixteen minutes after the grim numbers were released, he tweeted for attention – all grievance, all provocation, all CAPS.
“2020 will be the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history,” he proclaimed with his 13,087th tweet since he became president. “Delay the Election until people can properly, securely and safely vote???”
Meanwhile, in Atlanta:
Before a socially-distanced congregation of 50 of Lewis’s House colleagues and some of his fellow civil rights pioneers, all masked against the virus, Obama, Clinton and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called on Americans to honor Lewis’s optimistic courage by “nonviolently insisting on the truth,” as Pelosi put it, and, above all, by voting.
And then everyone ganged up on Trump:
The scene in the church where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once was pastor was unusually Universalist for a country so beset by division. Speakers paid tribute to Democrats and Republicans alike who had fought for civil rights. Obama praised both Bush and his father for signing extensions of the Voting Rights Act and hailed Lewis for sticking to his belief that he and his opponents shared a foundational belief in principles of equality and fairness.
“We must all keep ourselves open to hearing the call of love,” Bush said.
Obama hit the same theme: “In all of us, there’s a longing to do what’s right.” But sometimes, he added, that longing is “taught out of us. We start feeling as if, in fact, we can’t afford to extend kindness and decency to people. And so often, that’s encouraged in our culture.”
He did not single out his successor in the White House, nor did he need to: Trump had been asked days earlier whether he would pay his respects to Lewis by visiting his casket in the Capitol Rotunda.
“No, I won’t be going, no,” the president of the United States said, his lips tight.
But maybe that wasn’t a snub:
Trump has never been big on funerals. He showed up late and stood in the back at the service for one of the most important people in his life, his early mentor and attorney, Roy Cohn. At his own father’s funeral, Trump spoke mainly of himself, listing his real estate projects and noting that Fred Trump had supported each one.
He skipped the Capitol Rotunda honors for Sen. John McCain, the Republican leader and former prisoner of war in Vietnam, a national hero for whom Trump often expressed contempt.
“I gave him the kind of funeral that he wanted,” Trump said after that service. “I didn’t get a thank you. That is okay. We sent him on the way, but I wasn’t a fan of John McCain.”
Donald Trump is not a sentimental fellow. He’s more of a stone cold pathologically bitter angry man. Hey, it works for him. He’s president, isn’t he? But he may have gone too far this time:
Trump’s suggestion that the November election be postponed because of the virus crisis seemed less than full-throated. He ended his tweet with question marks, a move he reserves for moments when he has perhaps gone too far, when his lunge for attention might backfire, or when, as in this case, his proposal might be illegal, on its face unconstitutional.
Trump’s gambit didn’t win the usual plaudits. His dependable allies in Congress were not jumping off this particular cliff with their president. They could read the room, too.
“Never in the history of the country, through wars, depressions, and the Civil War have we ever not had a federally scheduled election on time,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), “and we’ll find a way to do that again this November 3.”
Yeah, well, whatever:
Trump continued apace, tapping out tweets embracing a Long Island pizzeria owner who ticked off some of his customers by flying a Trump 2020 flag, and vowing to “clear out the Anarchists & Agitators in Portland.”
But there was that other pizza guy:
In midafternoon, Trump paid tribute to Herman Cain, the former pizza chain executive and Republican presidential candidate whose death of covid-19 was announced Thursday. Cain had tested positive for the coronavirus days after attending – unmasked – a Trump campaign rally last month in Tulsa.
But Trump remained silent about Lewis, and by day’s end, he was back to tweeting about the election: “We are going to WIN the 2020 election, BIG!”
He can say that. He says lots of things. But there’s that other man:
John Lewis “played the long game,” a member of his congressional staff said at the funeral. He expected people to live up to their ideals. He saw in this spring’s protests a new chance to bend the arc of history.
In a final note he left behind to be published on the day of his funeral, Lewis called on “ordinary people with extraordinary vision” to “redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble.” He called the vote “the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society,” and he admonished Americans to “study and learn the lessons of history. The truth does not change.”
Don’t tell that to Trump, and the New York Times Jeremy Peters links that to what happened with Herman Cain:
The death of Herman Cain, attributed to the coronavirus, has made Republicans and President Trump face the reality of the pandemic as it hit closer to home than ever before, claiming a prominent conservative ally whose frequently dismissive attitude about taking the threat seriously reflected the hands-off inconsistency of party leaders.
Mr. Cain, a former business executive and candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012 had an irreverent, confrontational style that mirrored the president’s own brand of contrarian politics. In his more recent role as a public face for the president’s re-election campaign, he became an emblem of Trump-supporting, mask-defiant science skeptics, openly if not aggressively disdainful of public health officials who warned Americans to avoid large crowds, cover their faces and do as much as possible to limit contact with others.
His view was shared by many conservatives, who have applied a hard-nosed, culture war mentality to the virus, the most serious public health crisis in a century.
Mr. Trump wrote in praise of Mr. Cain on Twitter on Thursday, calling him “a Powerful Voice of Freedom and all that is good.”
Well, maybe not:
More than 150,000 Americans have died in a pandemic that is ravaging parts of the country where conservative leaders long resisted taking steps that have slowed the virus elsewhere, such as mask mandates and stay-at-home orders.
Those include places like Tulsa, Okla., where Mr. Cain attended a Trump campaign rally in June and showed his disregard for safety precautions on social media shortly before receiving a diagnosis for the virus.
With a uniformity that has defied rising death tolls in their own backyards, Republicans at the federal, state and local levels have adopted a similar tone of skepticism and defiance, rejecting the advice of public health officials and deferring instead to principles they said were equally important: conservative values of economic freedom and personal liberty.
From Arizona to Texas, as infection rates soared and hospital beds filled up, Republican governors stood in the way of local governments that wanted to do more. They overruled city mask mandates, arguing that it amounted to a form of government overreach. They said that requiring businesses to close or limit their capacity would strangle the economy and save few lives. They accused the news media and political opponents of exaggerating the risks to hurt the president’s chances for re-election.
They scorned the experts and mocked those who heeded the government’s warnings. Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida, a close ally and vigorous defender of the president, walked around the Capitol in March wearing a Hazmat-style gas mask as he prepared to vote on coronavirus relief legislation.
The governor of Oklahoma, Kevin Stitt, posted a picture of himself eating dinner with his family at a crowded restaurant a few days after the World Health Organization formally declared a pandemic. “It’s packed tonight!” his caption read.
And this month in Missouri, Gov. Mike Parson scoffed at the idea of a mask mandate, telling a cheering crowd of supporters, “You don’t need government to tell you to wear a dang mask.”
This killed many Americans. “Good” must be a relative term, but it doesn’t matter:
Even some of the harshest critics of Republican leadership said they did not think that Mr. Cain’s death would cause much reflection inside the party.
Evan McMullin, who ran against Mr. Trump as a third-party candidate in 2016, wrote on Twitter that Mr. Cain was “the first senior casualty of the science denial Trump cult.”
In an interview, Mr. McMullin said he had little hope this was a wake-up call. “I wish that was the case,” he said. “Many voters who support the president live in a totally different, alternate information environment in which the news of Herman Cain’s death – his visit to the Trump rally, his decision to not wear a mask – won’t reach them.”
Mr. Cain was eager to display his disregard for the experts and their warnings. Before the Trump rally in Tulsa, which local public health officials had urged the campaign to postpone, Mr. Cain urged people to “Ignore the outrage” and to defy “the left-wing shaming!”
That didn’t work out for him:
Mr. Cain tested positive on June 29. On July 2, his staff announced that he had been hospitalized. Weighing in on the no-mask policy for a Trump rally planned at Mount Rushmore on July 3, Mr. Cain’s Twitter feed was approving: “PEOPLE ARE FED UP!”
And now he’s dead, and it doesn’t really matter. That was old news by noon. The big news was Trump thinking it might be time to delay the elections for now. But that was nonsense too. That was a trap. Josh Marshall says walk away from this:
There’s a strong temptation, maybe a reflex, to be frightened and outraged by the President’s floating the idea of delaying the November election. But the only appropriate response is mockery and ridicule of the President’s weakness and corruption. As a factual and procedural matter, none of this is in the President’s control. In practice, no one can change the date of the election. In theory, Congress could do it – but good luck getting Nancy Pelosi to sign on to that. Even beyond this, it is a case where the ramshackle and decentralized process of American elections works in the favor of democracy. There is no national election. States hold elections. Nothing and no one can stop California, New York, Illinois and Virginia from holding their elections and rendering electors to the Electoral College meeting in December.
The bigger issue, the deeper issue here isn’t factual. It’s characterological.
The bigger issue is Trump himself:
I understand everyone is afraid. But that is loser talk. I’ve been saying for months – along with so many others – that this fall will be an ordeal of democracy. Perhaps one of the greatest threats our Republic has ever faced from internal enemies. But the truth is that the values and reflexes that make liberals and Democrats support things that will make society more just and humane lead them to react to moments like these with outrage and trembling more than mockery and power.
Marshall sees no need for outrage and trembling, only this:
All of this comes from Trump’s weakness rather than strength. The answer in any trial of strength or right is to maintain the initiative rather than cower. Every reporter working a beat today should be asking Republican elected officials – asking isn’t even the right word – giving Republican elected officials their one chance to denounce and disassociate themselves from the President’s words.
They have one chance. Tomorrow won’t cut it. If they want to go down with the President’s sinking ship, get their answer and lock them in. Democrats should be prepping ads about how Joni Ernst refused to back holding the election in November. She was ready to sign on. I hope her opponent is prepping that ad right now.
But whatever happens, don’t fall into Trump’s trap:
This is a hard moment. Not because of this morning’s nonsense but because of all the threats we face through this election. We cannot control everything that happens to us, either individually or in our civic existence. But we can avoid losing battles in our own heads before they even start. Let’s not do that.
But it may be that Trump is the one losing the battle here. Alexander Burns thinks so:
For several years, it has been the stuff of his opponents’ nightmares: that President Trump, facing the prospect of defeat in the 2020 election, would declare by presidential edict that the vote had been delayed or canceled.
Never mind that no president has that power, that the timing of federal elections has been fixed since the 19th century and that the Constitution sets an immovable expiration date on the president’s term. Given Mr. Trump’s contempt for the legal limits on his office and his oft-expressed admiration for foreign dictators, it hardly seemed far-fetched to imagine he would at least attempt the gambit.
But when the moment came on Thursday, with Mr. Trump suggesting for the first time that the election could be delayed, his proposal appeared as impotent as it was predictable – less a stunning assertion of his authority than yet another lament that his political prospects have dimmed.
In short, this is a frightened man:
Far from a strongman, Mr. Trump has lately become a heckler in his own government, promoting medical conspiracy theories on social media, playing no constructive role in either the management of the coronavirus pandemic or the negotiation of an economic rescue plan in Congress – and complaining endlessly about the unfairness of it all.
And that was never going to work:
Mr. Trump’s tweet about delaying the election marked a phase of his presidency defined not by the accumulation of executive power, but by an abdication of presidential leadership on a national emergency.
Faced with the kind of economic wreckage besieging millions of Americans, any other president would be shoulder-deep in the process of marshaling his top lieutenants and leaders in Congress to form a robust government response. Instead, Mr. Trump has been absent this week from economic-relief talks, even as a crucial unemployment benefit is poised to expire and the Federal Reserve chairman, Jerome H. Powell, warned publicly that the country’s recovery is lagging.
And any other president confronted with a virulent viral outbreak across huge regions of the country would be at least trying to deliver a clear and consistent message about public safety. Instead, Mr. Trump has continued to promote a drug of no proven efficacy, hydroxychloroquine, as a potential miracle cure, and to demand that schools and businesses reopen quickly – even as he has also claimed that it might be impossible to hold a safe election.
He’s done next to nothing. He knows he’s going to lose the election. Maybe he can call it off. This might have been a trial balloon. But, in the end, everyone yawned:
Given the extreme nature of Mr. Trump’s suggestion, there was an odd familiarity to the response it garnered from political leaders in both parties. There was no immediate call to the barricades, or renewed push from Democrats for presidential impeachment. Opposition leaders expressed outrage, but most agreed, in public and private, that Mr. Trump’s outburst should be treated as a distress call rather than a real statement of his governing intentions.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, asked in a Senate hearing whether he believed it was legal for a president to delay an election, said he was “not going to enter a legal judgment on that on the fly this morning.” That would be an assessment, he said, for the Justice Department.
Even Mr. Trump’s campaign declined to turn his tweet into a rallying cry, instead playing down the notion that it might have been a policy prescription. Hogan Gidley, a spokesman for the campaign, said Mr. Trump was “just raising a question about the chaos Democrats have created with their insistence on all mail-in voting” – an obviously false paraphrase of the president’s tweet, one that minimized the gravity of what Mr. Trump had said.
And no one really cared:
The timing of Mr. Trump’s tweet, as much as the content, highlighted the extent to which he has become a loud but isolated figure in government, and in the public life of the country. In addition to failing to devise a credible national response to the coronavirus pandemic, he has not played the traditional presidential role of calming the country in moments of fear and soothing it in moments of grief.
Never was that more apparent than on Thursday, when Mr. Trump spent the morning posting a combination of incendiary and pedestrian tweets, while his three immediate predecessors – Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton – gathered in Atlanta for the funeral of John Lewis, the congressman and civil rights hero.
And there was the other guy:
As mourners assembled at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, Mr. Trump had other matters on his mind, like hypothetical election fraud and, as it happened, Italian food.
“Support Patio Pizza and its wonderful owner, Guy Caligiuri, in St. James, Long Island (N.Y.).” the president tweeted, referring to a restaurateur who said he faced backlash for supporting Mr. Trump. “Great Pizza!!!”
That’s loser talk.