The moment we’ve been dreading since that escalator ride down Trump Tower five years ago this month — that’s been slowly building brick by brick as Donald Trump tore down the rule of law, abused the presidency to enrich himself, and grabbed the bully pulpit of the White House to divide America with racism, sexism and xenophobia — finally came at 6:45 p.m. as the sun sank over Washington on the night of June 1, 2020.
Backed into a corner after his incompetence and distrust in science was trampled by a virus that’s killed 105,000 Americans, compounded by 40 million unemployed, and now massive, chaotic protests over the police brutality and racism that he has nurtured instead of combating, the president of the United States declared war on the American people.
Speaking from the Rose Garden as a flash-bang grenade deployed against peaceful protesters echoed from across the street, Trump sounded almost like a satire of a tinhorn dictator as he vowed to “dominate the streets” while invoking an ancient law, the Insurrection Act of 1807, and threatening to use the U.S. military to end the nationwide protests and growing unrest over the killing of an unarmed 46-year-old black man, George Floyd, at the hands of four Minneapolis cops.
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Except this was no satire, no joke. Less than two minutes before the president began his speech, military police and other law-enforcement officers mounted a violent assault on hundreds of seemingly law-abiding protesters across the street from the White House, firing tear gas and painful rubber bullets as the panicked crowd scattered in a shocking split-screen moment.
“Did you see that?” a protester, his face covered in a red mask, screamed as he ran past a CNN camera crew, fleeing the projectiles and the gas. “Like we’re nothing!” It was an obviously staged moment, a reality-TV president unleashing all-too-real-life violence against American citizens who were peacefully exercising their First Amendment right to protest — all for the purpose of creating what he thought was the perfect photo op.
Indeed, the shocking military action to clear the streets allowed the president — who hasn’t been near a church in weeks, and who hasn’t reached out to console any family devastated by the coronavirus — to walk across the street to partially fire-damaged St. John’s Episcopal Church. There, he awkwardly held a Bible aloft, which only served as a reminder of the famous quote of unknown provenance that when fascism finally comes to America, it will be wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross. (The Episcopal bishop of D.C. said Trump never sought permission and that she was “outraged” by the photo op and the tear gas that enabled it.)
It was hard to say what was worse about Trump’s brief speech to the nation, one that practically no one had asked him to give. It could have been one particularly odd thing he said — that he would “protect the rights of law-abiding Americans, including your Second Amendment rights.” It seemed not so much a dog whistle as a siren blast to the president’s locked-and-loaded supporters, including the heavily armed “Boogaloo Bois,” to enter the fray on the combative streets.
But arguably much worse were all of the things that the 45th president of the United States didn’t say to the American people — things that we know Donald Trump lacks the emotional intelligence or stability to say. That he understands the pain of the protesters isn’t only about the last minutes of George Floyd’s life but also the last 401 years of American racism. That the government will listen to the people’s grievances rather than drown them out with flash-bangs. That their president wants America to heal, not tear it violently in two as convoys of troops roll down our cities’ streets.
“We are teetering on the brink of dictatorship,” CNN commentator Don Lemon said, as alarmed pundits struggled to find the words for a 244-year American Experiment staring into the abyss. But frankly there were too many moments Monday when it felt like we were already over that edge. It was not just in increasingly occupied Washington, but right here in the city where it all began, Philadelphia, as police fired tear gas and shot rubber bullets at hundreds of people engaged in nonviolent civil disobedience by blocking I-676. As these police-state tactics escalate, the social fabric of the country is getting ripped to shreds.
Donald Trump needs to go, and we can’t wait until even November 3, let alone January 20, 2021. In a perfect world, leaders of the Republican Party who were statesmen like Hugh Scott or Barry Goldwater and not autocratic toadies like Mitch McConnell would come down Capitol Hill and demand his resignation. But this is not a perfect world, and regular people like you and me are going to have to fight to save this country and our democracy.