Ever since he began his occupation of the White House, Donald Trump has wanted to see tanks and troops on American streets. After being treated to the pomp and circumstance of a military review in France, and seeing the annual parade of tanks, missiles, and goosestepping troops that are commanded by his pals Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un, Trump has been jealous. He’s repeatedly drawn up plans for rolling military hardware down Pennsylvania Avenue even when the cost of that event was tagged at $100 million—which may or may not include repairing the damage left behind.
But Trump has finally gotten his military parade in the worst possible way. Using protests over the police murder of George Floyd and decades of racist police brutality as an excuse, Trump has flooded Washington, D.C. with federal police, the National Guard, active duty military, and whatever the hell these guys are. Peaceful protesters have found themselves at the receiving end of tear gas, pepper balls, flash-bangs, rubber bullets, bean bags, and other theoretically nonlethal weapons. And that was just the start. As Trump’s plan to “dominate” the First Amendment has rolled out, protesters have found themselves face to face with armed and armored troops, battered by low-flying helicopters, and driven away from spaces that remained open to the public in the midst of every past protest. All so Trump can feel “safe.”
On Monday evening, Donald Trump literally blasted his way through peaceful protesters so he could march between twin walls of troops, occupy a church where he was not invited, and wave an upside-down Bible in a photo op. For Trump, this was a “show of strength” in which thousands of troops “dominated” the protesters and made Washington, D.C. the “safest place in the nation.”
In truth, Trump’s actions showed a weak man operating out of fear. A man whose impression of safety is a police state in which citizens’ rights are curtailed in favor of his, the dear leader’s, protection; a man who believes that throwing thousands of troops at peaceful protesters makes him “tough.” In other words, Trump got exactly the North Korea Wonderland he always wanted. And found it good.
It’s the kind of attitude that sees Tiananmen Square not as a tragedy for democracy and human rights, but as a triumph of power. The Chinese government sure did dominate. Boy, did they make Beijing “safe.”
As Trump has filled the streets with troops, he’s filled Twitter with calls to “law and order,” consciously mimicking Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign that played off white America’s fear—a fear that was founded both then and now not out of concerns over racial violence, but a refusal to deliver racial justice. That’s not surprising. Trump’s 2016 campaign was constructed around a “build that wall” bedrock of xenophobia and a racist narrative about an “invasion” from Latin America. Now Trump is turning that same story inward, searching out white fears of losing a privileged place in society to justify violent acts against the Black community and supporters.
Even Nixon, besieged by 500,000 protesters, didn’t fence off Lafayette Square or send the military to “dominate” the Lincoln Memorial. Trump isn’t just the worst of us—he’s also the most cowardly. There’s no doubt that Trump’s appeal to fear will appeal to the fearful. For those who hold white privilege as the nation’s most important quality, any action can be justified in defense of that “American value.” For those who are terrified of change, hiding behind a wall of weapons can pretend to be “bravery.”
It’s tempting to say that this is what bravery looks like …
— Anna-Lysa Gayle (@AnnaLysaGayle) June 2, 2020
But the truth is that Warren’s actions didn’t require bravery. They didn’t require that she confront some great fear, or press onward in the face of enemies. They only required a trust in democracy, faith in the American people, and a genuine concern for the welfare of the nation. They only required that she believe in democracy.
What Warren did wasn’t an act of bravery. But it certainly underlined how what Trump did was the act of a sniveling coward.