Donald Trump strolled from the White House to the steps of St. John’s Church last Monday to take the stage for the most emblematic performance in the most definitive week of his presidency.
His eldest daughter fished a Bible from her purse and passed it to him. He weighed it, turning it around in his hands as police sirens wailed from side streets. Then he held the Good Book above his shoulder, like an auction paddle poised for a bid.
“We have a great country, that’s my thoughts,” he said. “The greatest country in the world. We’ll make it even greater. We will make it even greater. It won’t take long. It’s not gonna take long. You see what’s going on. It’s coming back. It’s coming back strong. It will be greater than ever before.”
He moved stage left and presented his prop to the cameras again, turning its spine outward to make sure his audience got it: The Bible. Fumbling through a last bit of choreography, he invited his secretary of defense, attorney general, national security advisor, press secretary and chief of staff to stand next to him. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, dressed in combat fatigues, watched from the wings. Somewhere above that all-white cast, helicopter blades whirred. And then it ended.
“Okay. Thank you very much. We have the greatest country in the world,” Trump said as he headed back behind the curtains and tossed out a warning. “We’re gonna keep it nice and safe.”
The St. John’s gig was a raw abuse of Trump’s powers, a stunt made possible by deploying state violence to clear a path through peaceful protesters saddened and angered by George Floyd’s death at the hands of police. It marked an end to several days of hibernation as Trump, hiding behind White House walls, his Twitter feed and his golf game, did his best to avoid the pain and anger unspooling across America. But his St. John’s show also was designed to intimidate protesters, stoking fear among people of color who have been demanding merely that their government and police refrain from killing them. And it was tragically off-kilter, a politically inept bit of stagecraft that served only to showcase his irresponsibility and utter lack of empathy.
But I suspect Trump was nonetheless happy. Even if the staging ultimately doesn’t serve him well electorally, it will still serve him well personally. Because however unraveled he may be about weak poll numbers and social disarray he can’t control, performing at St. John’s advanced one of his few long-term goals: promoting Trumpism so that it endures beyond his presidency. Whenever his tenure ends, I imagine Trump will attempt to start or buy a media company that can compete with Fox News and do battle with everyone else. He will continue to tour stadiums, offering the faithful a spiritual revival a la Elmer Gantry. He will remain a force in Republican politics, darkening the national conversation.
Trump has used his time in the White House to cement his relationship with right-wing hardliners, older white guys, conservative Christians, anti-government loners, displaced rural and industrial workers and the more generally aggrieved. He’ll do anything to preserve that bond, even if it means tearing the country apart and fencing off the White House.
Trump loyalists may not recognize it as such, but Trumpism is fundamentally anarchic. It puts racial tolerance, equality, community, authority, morality, expertise, justice, national security and economic progress in play by relentlessly attacking institutions and the conversations meant to promote them.
There’s no substantive vision about what should replace those institutions, let alone a familiarity with the values that inform them. Instead, there’s only an unmoored cult of personality. Trump, who doesn’t read books, thinks “The Art of the Deal” ranks closely to the Bible on must-read lists, providing fodder for comedians such as Sarah Cooper. He’s referred to himself publicly as “the Chosen One” but can’t respond coherently when asked to cite passages from the Bible that hold special meaning for him. “You know, when I talk about the Bible it’s very personal so I don’t want to get into verses,” he told reporters five years ago when his presidential bid began. “The Bible means a lot to me, but I don’t want to get into specifics.”
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