President Abraham Lincoln lived during summers on the outskirts of Washington at the Soldiers’ Home. He bore the sorrows of “this terrible war” and the recent death of his young son. Even though it was wartime, he was careless of his own safety, and often at night when he couldn’t sleep, he’d pass unseen and alone beyond the infantry guards stationed around his cottage. Also, he’d walk alone from the White House to evening services at St. John’s Church off Lafayette Square. He’d sit unnoticed in the back row and leave unnoticed before the service ended.
Lincoln went to St. John’s for solace and to pray, having humbly found his own wisdom “insufficient.”
President Donald Trump walked to St. John’s Church the other day. Before he left the Rose Garden, he announced his intention to “deploy the United States military” on American streets against American citizens. Even as he was mouthing support for peaceful protesters, mounted federal police, uniformed Secret Service officers, military police, National Guardsmen and other “law enforcement partners,” acting on direct orders from Attorney General William Barr, were driving hundreds of peaceful protesters from Lafayette Square with smoke canisters, pepper spray, flash-bang grenades, batons, shields and a species of tear gas. You could hear the explosions as the president read his speech.
Once the protesters were forcibly removed, and a priest and a seminarian were likewise expelled from their church grounds, the president and his entourage were escorted under heavy guard through the empty square to St. John’s. The president mostly stood mutely, wearing his customary strongman glower, awkwardly holding up a Bible and posing for pictures in front of the boarded-up building. His only message was his usual rote, sloganized insistence that our “great country” is “coming back strong” and “greater than ever before.”
No homily on the First Amendment and our tradition of peaceable dissent. No quiet devotion. No modest coming and going. No back row for sure.
Not even “thoughts and prayers.”
Just a 5-minute photo-op with someone else’s Bible.
I have no experience that compares to the stresses and complications of law enforcement. I’m a teacher, though, and in my small, nonlethal way, I know what it’s like to be responsible for keeping order when you’re outnumbered, and to be second-guessed by superiors and spectators. I can only imagine what it’s like to be a cop. But despite my sympathy and respect, a badge can’t be a license to abuse the law or the people.
That said, I share your outrage when vandals strut and pose on firebombed police cars. I realize that some in the streets are more intent on looting sneakers than on establishing justice. I can’t abide these menacing posers, the damage they do to citizens and society.
But there’s far greater menace in a poser president.
No worthy American leader seeks to “dominate” the people. No American leader would loose “vicious dogs” or brandish “ominous weapons” against the people. No American leader launches aircraft in a “show of force” against the people. No American leader struts and orders troops against the people.
Donald Trump is a threat to the republic. He is the man the founders feared.
That isn’t just the judgment of this middle school teacher, undrafted Number 183 in the Vietnam lottery. Adm. William McRaven, architect of the Bin Laden assault, judges Trump “the greatest threat to democracy” he’s ever seen. Former Defense Secretary Cohen warns that Trump is “leading us down the trail toward a dictatorship.”
Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs under Presidents Bush and Obama, condemns Trump’s church visit as a “stunt” that “laid bare his disdain for the rights of peaceful protest.” The admiral describes himself as “sickened” by the sight of troops under orders to “forcibly and violently clear a path through Lafayette Square to accommodate” the president. He asserts that our towns and cities “are not battlespaces to be dominated,” that “our fellow citizens are not the enemy, and must never become so.” He’s “deeply worried” that the armed forces will be “further politicized,” and he lacks confidence in the “soundness of the orders they will be given by this commander-in-chief.” For all these reasons, he found it “impossible to remain silent.”
Adm. James Stavridis, retired NATO Supreme Allied Commander rejects the use of “civil-military force” against protesters to “clear the way for a presidential photo-op” as “beyond the pale of American norms.” He reminds us that the founders established those constitutional norms against the day when the army might be employed to “further the aims of a dictator.” He concurs that “dominating the battlespace in our American cities is anathema to America,” and he urges senior military officers to speak these vital truths “to power,” even “at the risk of their career.” He concludes with the prescient warning that “we cannot afford to have a future Lafayette Square end up looking like Tiananmen Square.”
Former defense secretary and retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, once Trump’s favorite and now, reflecting the president’s customary, retributive pettiness, “the world’s most overrated general,” confessed himself “angry and appalled” as troops were ordered “to violate the constitutional rights of their fellow citizens” to “provide a bizarre photo-op for the elected commander-in-chief.”
He, too, decries employing troops to dominate the civilian “battlespace.” He exhorts us to resist Donald Trump’s persistent, “deliberate effort” to divide us and likens it to the “Nazi slogan for conquering us.” He laments “three years without mature leadership,” condemns the events in Lafayette Square as “the abuse of executive authority,” and calls on us to “reject and hold accountable those in office who would make a mockery of our Constitution.”
We are reeling, know it or not, on the brink of fascism.
Those in government who’ve sworn to defend the Constitution appear to lack the courage, the wisdom or the power. This is no time for stupid, venal leadership.
One day, scholars and pundits will write books about this season of peril when we nearly lost the republic.
Or they won’t because the republic will have been lost, and only the leader’s lies will be allowed.
If you think it can’t happen here, that’s precisely what people say before it does.
Peter Berger ha s taught English and history for 30 years. He lives in Mount Holly.