Power  /  Comment

The Unpresident and the Unredeemed Promise

A combination of historical surpluses—the afterlives of slavery, of the deranged presidency—has raised the stakes in the present struggle.

Any vaguely conscious American can understand George Floyd’s death not just as an event that happened but as something happening again and again. In Trumpworld, however, any acknowledgment of historical patterns can express itself only as a burlesque. Thus, in explaining Trump’s authorization of a violent attack on peaceful, law-abiding protesters outside the White House on Lafayette Square to clear the way for his Bible-toting photo opportunity at St. John’s Church, his press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, suggested that history was indeed repeating itself across time:

Through all of time, we’ve seen presidents and leaders across the world who have had leadership moments and very powerful symbols that were important for our nation to see at any given time to show a message of resilience and determination. Like Churchill, we saw him inspecting the bombing damage and it sent a powerful message of leadership to the British people.

While most of the world could see in the choking of George Floyd a historic recurrence that is all too real, Trump’s enablers produced an unconscious parody. In this fantastical travesty, Trump’s assault on the bodies and the rights of his fellow citizens echoes Churchill’s rallying of a people under assault from Nazis. A bizarre performance in which the leader is kept away from his citizens by armed force is a replay of Churchill’s mingling with bombed-out Londoners. An act of extreme and literal division (Trump cannot share space with the protesters) was foreshadowed by a British leader’s show of unified national purpose. To adapt Karl Marx, this is history repeating itself, the first time as calming reassurance, the second as disgrace under pressure.

There is a single prism through which McEnany’s analogy with London during the Blitz is not entirely inane: Trump’s desire to make the Black Lives Matter protests substitute for the one thing his presidency has lacked—his very own war. Lincoln and Churchill are evoked because they are the archetypes of wartime leaders. After the protests began Trump’s barely latent lust for armed conflict surfaced with extraordinary rapidity, with the president instructing governors in the imperative for “overwhelming force” and “domination” over the enemy citizenry and conjuring “vicious dogs” and “ominous weapons.” Defense Secretary Mark Esper defined the streets of US cities as the “battlespace.”

One of Trump’s closest congressional allies, Senator Tom Cotton from Arkansas, tweeted that the protesters should face not just combat troops on those streets but death from the skies: “Let’s see how tough these Antifa terrorists are when they’re facing off with the 101st Airborne Division,” a unit whose official mission statement is to provide “our Nation an unmatched expeditionary Air Assault capability.” Presumably worried that an expeditionary air assault might not seem sufficiently tough for Trump, Cotton then drew up his own battle order: “And, if necessary, the 10th Mountain, 82nd Airborne, 1st Cav, 3rd Infantry—whatever it takes to restore order. No quarter for insurrectionists, anarchists, rioters, and looters.”

These threats were not mere bloviation: seven hundred soldiers from the 82nd Airborne were in fact summoned to Washington. The face of war showed itself on the streets, not just in the legions of heavily armed men in uniform but in the low-flying helicopters and sand-colored Humvees. These machines themselves have a history, evoking in turn America’s wars in Vietnam and Iraq. The resonances are rather apt. This militaristic response from Trump and the Republicans is, of course, too much—outrageously in excess of any actual threat, even from the violent fringe of overwhelmingly peaceful demonstrations. For what constitutes this moment is a kind of overkill. It brings together the historical surfeits of three wars. The US has engaged in many armed conflicts, but three of them have never ended: the Civil War, the Vietnam War, and the so-called war on terror. Their toxic residues flow from different directions into the current breakdown of the American polity.