I recently wrote about how the coronavirus obliterated the memory of the impeachment, which just three months ago seemed so epic and all-consuming. If someone had told you a week ago that something would soon happen that would—at least temporarily—completely knock the coronavirus out of the news, would you have believed them?
We are now in the midst of three historic crises, simultaneously: a once-in-a-century pandemic, an economic catastrophe approaching that of the Great Depression, and now, atop those two, damn near every major American city on fire in a mass uprising spawned by four hundred years of systemic racial oppression.
I know it’s almost too easy a shot, but I must ask:
Is America great again yet?
In fact, things are moving so fast that between the time I wrote my previous blog post last Saturday morning, and when I went to bed that night, the entire national zeitgeist had shifted dramatically. That morning we could still have a calm, if disturbing, conversation about Amy Cooper as she related to George Floyd. Ten hours later, the conversation could only be about what felt like an incipient civil war breaking out in America.
It’s all of a piece of course. The issues the impeachment raised regarding Trump’s lawlessness perfectly predicted his criminal mishandling of the pandemic, which included worsening the attendant economic catastrophe by making maintenance of the plutocracy the priority. Now we are contending with an even deeper and more vile cancer at the heart of our body politic, the legacy of slavery, which is also reflected, not coincidentally, in the disproportionate degree to which both the virus and the new Depression are affecting communities of color.
Let me be the millionth person to note that, “promises made, promises kept”-wise, Trump has finally made good on at least one thing, his inaugural evocation of American carnage.
And here’s the kicker: it’s all happening on live TV.
MANDATE, MY ASS
Gil Scott-Heron is one of a handful of musical artists vying for the title of Godfather of Hip Hop. We don’t have to have a debate—Ari Melber is not returning my calls. But what’s indisputable is that his spoken word grooves were a key influence, as was his ferocious social consciousness.
Far and away his most famous song, 1971’s “The Revolution Will Not be Televised,” was a scathing indictment of the vast wasteland that was American TV at the time and its utter irrelevance to the political, racial, social, and cultural turmoil of the civil rights and Vietnam eras. It was the cri de cœur Newton Minow would have made, if he had been able to rap.
Point made, and then some, Gil. That the song has been overplayed to death (or at least over-referenced) is a testament to how perfectly it hit the bullseye.
Except that it turns out TV, insipid as it often is, also has the power to document and accelerate and even inspire dramatic political and social change, including revolution.
What we have seen in the half century since is that television, and telecommunications more broadly, to include the Internet, can be and have been a fantastic asset to democracy—a force multiplier, as we say in the Army. Of course, that same power can also be used for evil. (Looking at you, Mark Zuckerberg.) But the power itself is undeniable, and it is on bold display in our current moment.
There’s no need to detail here all the negative things about TV and related media in all their brain-sapping glory. (Five words: “Two and a Half Men.”) But telecommunications can also provide galvanizing experiences that can profoundly alter the course of human events. And those experiences can be singular or cumulative.
In Chicago, at the 1968 Democratic Convention, it was televised images of cops in baby blue helmets violently attacking anti-war protestors that became a watershed moment, along with the protestors’ battle cry speaking to that very memorialization: “The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching!” They were proved right: those few days shook the world.
In the same era, broadcast news coverage of Vietnam—America’s first so-called “living room war”—over an extended period of years is often credited (or blamed, depending on your politics) with turning the American public against US involvement in Southeast Asia. There were lots of other factors, but if it contributed, good.
Now we are seeing the potential for video, whether broadcast or via cyberspace, to take this groundswell of outrage set off by the brutal murder of George Floyd and transform it into something even bigger, and of lasting political consequence.
Apart from whatever first person experience each of us may have of the protests, most of our experience of this nationwide cataclysm is delivered to us (and mediated by) television. It is a nationwide crisis because we can see it happening nationwide, not just in our own towns and outside our own windows. And we can see it happening because it’s on TV.
That offers the possibility for a critical mass that is much bigger than our narrow, individual perspectives. It’s inspiring. It presents a sense of a national and even global movement.
Like a great many other observers, I wrote last week about how Trump’s longstanding, unconscionable, Soviet-style attacks on the press (“the enemy of the people!”) helped create the environment in which broadcast journalists have been attacked by police with shocking frequency during this period of uprising. And that is because people like Trump and his allies know the power of the media, TV in particular, and fear it. In fact, he continued those attacks even as police were arresting reporters and firing rubber bullets and pepper ammo at them ON CAMERA, for no crime other than doing their jobs.
If the pen is mightier than the sword, then the digital camera is mightier than a whole Staples store full of pens. Or swords. (You get the idea.)
As Gil says: “The revolution will not be televised, will not be televised, will not be televised, will not be televised….The revolution will be live.”
In this case, it is both.
THE SOUND OF SIRENS, PART 2
As big a hit as “Revolution: was, my personal favorite by GSH is his savage takedown of “Ronald Ray-gun” from ten years later, “B Movie,” which is also apropos at this moment, when we hear Trump echo Reagan’s call for a “bloodbath” in response to antiwar protests in 1970. There was also some nice symmetry to the SpaceX launch last weekend that coincided with the George Floyd protests, in light of what is surely Gil’s second most famous song, “Whitey on the Moon,” also perfectly timed to echo the debates of the Apollo age amid race riots.
Here’s some other stuff we saw on TV in the past week, and some we didn’t.
We saw police chiefs kneel in solidarity with protestors. Unarmed protestors bravely putting their bodies in front of hammer-wielding instigators to stop them senselessly smashing shop windows. Crowds silently raising their arms in the symbolic “Don’t shoot” gesture. George Floyd’s brother weeping and telling us how Donald Trump wouldn’t let him get a word in on the phone. A hooded infiltrator smashing up the curb to create rocks to throw at the cops before righteous, genuine protestors grabbed him and bodily handed his ass over to the police.
But also the bad:
We saw militarized police in gear more suited to the streets of Fallujah than the USA violently beating unarmed demonstrators without provocation. Cops in Atlanta pulling drivers out of their cars without cause and tasering them. NYPD and LAPD cruisers deliberately running over protestors. The National Guard (I presume) using helicopters marked with the Red Cross to intimidate and disperse protestors, which is a war crime under international law.
As I write this, tens of millions of Americans in twenty-some US cities are under curfew—a new twist on the stay-at-home order to which we’ve lately grown accustomed. This past March I wrote a piece called “The Sound of Sirens,” about the now-constant soundtrack of sirens here in New York City, the epicenter of the global pandemic. Those sirens have only grown louder and more frequent in the past week.
Except before they were ambulances. Now they are just as likely to be paddywagons and fire trucks.
So where was the President of the United States, the most powerful person on Earth, the so-called leader of the so-called Free World, during all this?
Fighting with Jack Dorsey, mostly.
As protests began to roil the country after George Floyd’s murder, including one in Lafayette Park, right cross from the White House, the Secret Service grew alarmed enough about Trump’s safety that they moved him to an underground bunker beneath the building, the kind of place George W. Bush was rushed to on 9/11 (after he was done with The Pet Goat).
For days Trump hunkered down like the quivering coward he is, issuing racist tweets that echoed George Wallace and Walter Headley, conjuring images of “vicious dogs” and “the most ominous weapons,” calling the protestors THUGS (all caps, AARP style), acting like the make-believe tough guy that he sees himself as, and ejaculating at the thought of bloodthirsty uniformed Secret Service officers eager to mix it up with protestors. Super helpful, Don.
Amid Trump’s repeated expansions of his bullfrog neck in an attempt to show dominance, many wondered if and when he would make the standard and expected presidential address to the nation, appealing for calm and offering thoughts-and-prayers-style bromides, yada yada yada. You know, the way a president is supposed to do. But even some of his own advisors worried that he would only make it worse. Dan Rather put it best:
I can imagine no other president in my lifetime failing to address the nation in a prime time speech during a crisis such as this. On the other hand, I cannot imagine another president whose words would be less welcome by so many of his fellow citizens.
Characteristically, when Trump finally did emerge, it was to do the most vile thing imaginable.
GET ME TO THE CHURCH ON TIME
The Washington Post reports:
(S)hortly before the president addressed the nation from the Rose Garden at 6:43 pm Monday and roughly a half-hour before the District’s 7pm curfew went into effect—authorities fired flash-bang shells, gas and rubber bullets into the crowd, clearing a path for Trump to visit the church immediately after his remarks.
In front of St. John’s Episcopal Church, Trump then posed stiffly, as is his manner, and awkwardly held up a Bible. (Asked by a reporter if it was his Bible, Trump knew a trap when he saw one, and replied, “It’s a Bible.” So, no.)
I was surprised it didn’t burst into flames.
Like his weird habit of hugging (and sometimes kissing) the flag to sexually excite CPAC crowds, Trump was literally embodying the old saw about fascism coming to America wrapped in the flag and waving the Good Book. (Or in some variations, carrying a cross. Variously attributed to Huey Long and Sinclair Lewis, its true origins are lost in antiquity.)
Subtlety is not Trump’s strong suit. Donny: It’s an EXPRESSION. You don’t literally have to wear the flag like a cape and wave the Bible like Van Helsing wielding a crucifix.
I guess he and his sycophants thought this was gonna look great, or at least inspire his base. Maybe it did. For the rest of the country, however, the sheer shamelessness of the stunt, and its hamhandedness—the notion that a thrice-married serial adulterer, lifelong greedhead, and proud sexual predator who doesn’t know II Corinthians from Porky’s 2 is some sort of defender of the faith—fell flat at best. His brazen appropriation of sacred iconography and inhuman application of state violence to facilitate it was, uh, a bad look. As my friend Justin Schein succinctly put it, “The least pious man in America tear-gassed peaceful protesters for the sake of sick political theater.”
As with many of Trump’s actions—his decision to fire Jim Comey, his interview with Lester Holt, his release of the Zelinskyy readout, his admonition to inject disinfectant—it was the kind of self-harm his worst enemies couldn’t have dreamed of, an own goal that is sure to haunt him all the way to November, and itself a marker of his godawful instincts and general unfitness. The Washington Post wrote:
“We long ago lost sight of normal, but this was a singularly immoral act,” said Brendan Buck, a longtime former Hill aide who is now a Republican operative. ‘The president used force against American citizens, not to protect property, but to soothe his own insecurities. We will all move on to the next outrage, but this was a true abuse of power and should not be forgotten.”
The Right Rev. Mariann Budde, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, said she learned of the president’s visit by watching it on the news.
“I am outraged,” she said, with pauses emphasizing her anger as her voice slightly trembled. “I am the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington and was not given even a courtesy call that they would be clearing with tear gas so they could use one of our churches as a prop, holding a Bible, one that declares that God is love and when everything he has said and done is to inflame violence.”
Father James Martin, editor of America, the Jesuits’ magazine, was even more blunt on Twitter, calling it “revolting. ” The next day, Trump staged a similar stunt at Washington DC’s Saint John Paul II Shrine, this time with the very pious and morally upstanding Melania by his side, but again without giving notice or asking permission, drawing swift condemnation from Catholic officials. Archbishop Gregory Wilton of the archdiocese of Washington said in a statement:
I find it baffling and reprehensible that any Catholic facility would allow itself to be so egregiously misused and manipulated in a fashion that violates our religious principles, which call us to defend the rights of all people even those with whom we might disagree….
(Saint Pope John Paul II was an) “ardent defender of the rights and dignity of human beings. He certainly would not condone the use of tear gas and other deterrents to silence, scatter or intimidate them for a photo opportunity in front of a place of worship and peace.
We have since learned that noted archconservative Catholic and police state enthusiast Bill Barr himself gave the order to clear the protestors from near St. John’s using gas and cops on horseback. (They also forcibly ejected a priest to clear the set.) The administration later had the US Park Police deny that they used tear gas, claiming instead that it was only smoke, even though reputable reporters who were there, like NBC’s Garrett Hake, were very clear about what they were hit with.
Rev. Budde later expanded on her comments, speaking to the Religion News Service:
“Everything that he has said is antithetical to the teachings of our traditions and what we stand for as a church—I was horrified.
“He didn’t come to pray. He didn’t come to lament the death of George Floyd. He didn’t come to address the deep wounds that are being expressed through peaceful protest by the thousands upon thousands. He didn’t try to bring calm to situations that are exploding with pain.”
Whether this heartening reaction from mainstream Catholic and Protestant clergy will spread to the evangelical leaders who are Trump’s religious bedrock remains to be seen. Somewhere, a cock is crowing three times.
But as Rev. Buddie very sagely told MSNBC, bringing it all back home, as shameful as a PR stunt like this was, the real outrage is what is being done to peaceful protestors in the streets, and what happened to George Floyd in Minneapolis. That is what Trump was trying to distract us from with the Bible photo…..and while it may have backfired, he may yet succeed if we fail to keep in that context.
THE SOUNDS OF MARCHING CHARGING FEET, BOY
In the New Yorker, Susan Glasser writes of Trump’s habit of non-ironically playing the Village People’s hyper-ironic gay anthem “Macho Man” at his rallies and other public appearances, a trope that continued even amid the George Floyd protests:
(Trump’s) desire to be the omnipresent macho man of our public life obscures his very real impotence in the face of indisputable events, like the killing of an innocent black man—or the outbreak of a deadly once-in-a-century pandemic.
Now seems to be a rare instance when the hard cold unpleasant facts of what is happening in America have intruded in a most unwelcome way on the Trump Presidency.
In the same way that Trump can’t be blamed for COVID-19, only for the criminal way he screwed up the response, he can’t be blamed for the knee that was pressed down on George Floyd’s neck either, or the history of racism in America that led to it…..only for inflaming that hatred with his every utterance, a habit on hideous display in his despicable handling of the Floyd murder and the attendant outrage.
The St. John’s fiasco actually came after Trump had already tripled down on his incendiary rhetoric with his first public pronouncements after poking his head out of his gopher hole. Befitting his lifelong insecurity and fixation on cheap machismo, most of it advocated brutal, violent, sometimes illegal response to Constitutionally protected dissent.
Leaked audio from a phone call with governors revealed Trump needling them for being “weak,” “fools,” and “jerks” and urging them to “dominate” the protestors. Not widely noted was that, right before that call, Trump had a private phone call with Vladimir Putin. (Was anyone from our side listening for change?) No doubt his exhortation for US governors to behave like violent assholes was an attempt to impress his boyfriend. (Dear Vlad: I like you; do you like me? I mean, “like” like? Check one, yes or no.)
Putin must be grinning from ear to ear as America continues to destroy itself under the hand of his chosen puppet. Trump famously has a pathologically fear of being laughed at (ouch, Seth Meyers) and before he was elected often claimed that the world was doing just that at the US under his predecessor, I forget his name. Ironically, our enemies are now, openly, guffawing at our sorry state, for which Trump is largely to blame.
Among other wolf tickets for sale, Trump also threatened to supersede state authorities and invoke the Insurrection of Act of 1807 (we’re all familiar with that, right?), allowing him to deploy active duty US military forces to quell this “rebellion,” an executive act which no reputable expert in military law thinks is remotely defensible. But you may have noticed that Donald, him not care much what the fucking law says.
The odious Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) eagerly seconded that totally awesome idea, promising “no quarter.” Hey Tom, I know you were in the 101st, but you’re a disgrace to the division, the Army, and the country by suggesting sending the Screaming Eagles—as well as one of my old outfits, the 82nd Airborne; the 10th Mountain; 1st Cav; and 3ID—to apply lethal force against American citizens. Shame on you. Also, go back to law school and look up what “no quarter” means. You’ll find it in the War Crimes section of the law library.
But this is what the Republican Party has become: people who would have American soldiers shoot their fellow countrymen, in defense of Donald Trump.
THERE’S A RIOT GOIN’ ON (OR IS THERE?)
If I may take a moment to detour into semantics, I don’t know how many of you have experienced it, but “tear gas” is an innocuous description of what is more properly known as CS. Like everyone who was ever in the military, I was given a generous taste of it in training. It’s like your head’s been doused with acid, and not the fun kind. Your eyes and skin burn, your nose opens up like a spigot, your throat constricts until you’re afraid you might choke, and your lungs feel like they’re on fire.
So next time we hear about the police or National Guard using it on peaceful protestors like Barr ordered in DC this week, let’s try to picture that. When it comes to tears, and when the time is right for them, I refer you to Bob Dylan’s “Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.”
But a lot of the imagery and language that even the mainstream media uses is biased and loaded. Lingering on footage of opportunists smashing shop windows, thus implicitly tarring legitimate protestors as complicit. Talk of “riots” (not protests or demonstrations). Nonchalant use of the word “looters”. But as David Frum writes, “Trump Is the Looter.”
The Trump years have confronted all Americans with stark contrasts in the treatment of crime depending on the status of the criminal. The day before the police killing of Floyd, the president and his supporters were voicing passionate concerns for the alleged maltreatment of Michael Flynn by the justice system. Then a helpless man is choked to death on a public street in full public view and—well, he was no choirboy, the president’s supporters explain.
For the record, Trump’s designated bootlickers, er, I mean the leadership of the Republican Party, uniformly defended his actions (or scurried away like cockroaches when the kitchen light comes on) reserving all their outrage over the use of violence for—hold on to your hats—the protestors.
But unless you’re blind, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that it was not the protestors but the police—which is to say, the authorities who control them—who are responsible for escalating the violence by taking needlessly provocative and aggressive measures against demonstrations that have largely been peaceful. “Police Erupt in Violence Nationwide” as a Slate headline wittily put it.
But these are not just isolated incidents sparked by the oft-cited bad apples. Numerous experts have noted that this seems to be a deliberate, calculated escalation of the law enforcement response, dictated from top officials in various cities, even apart from Trump’s cruder, borderline nihilistic admonition to bang heads and act like tough guys.
In his National Book Award-winning memoir An American Requiem, my friend James Carroll, the esteemed novelist, author, and former Roman Catholic priest, writes poignantly of being a seminarian in Washington DC in April 1968 and sorrowfully watching the city burn in the wake of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Jim tells of his agony, but also his understanding of why those fires had been set.
When I watch the scenes in Minneapolis, or LA, or Houston, or here in New York, I recognize the feeling.
But I will confess that when I see the scene in Washington DC, even with its worrying incipient violence, I feel inspired. That sort of angry public uprising is what’s supposed to happen when you have a government like this. It should have begun long ago. I won’t lie; watching it now is gratifying, even as I’m not sure how it plays out from here.
If Trump wants to declare martial law, by name or merely de facto, he might just meet the same fate as another two-bit strongman, Ferdinand Marcos. The crowds are already laying siege outside the White House, the same way they did outside Malancanang Palace in 1986. Trump would do well to read up—if he can read—about how that ended for Ferdie.
The New York Times reports that Trump was “rattled” by the protests as he and his family were hustled into the underground bunker.
He should be.
TIANANMEN ON THE POTOMAC?
Trump now wants to flex and have US soldiers shoot American citizens in cold blood? Hey Republicans, hey MAGA Nation, hey self-proclaimed Constitution-loving “patriots”: you down with that?
(Kinda makes his hobbyhorse of last week—wanting to shut down Twitter—look pretty mild.)
Trump’s ostentatious belligerence is very on brand for the fat-assed bully he is. Unfortunately, as he threatens all manner of fascist bullshit to compensate for his obvious lifelong insecurity about his tiny penis, he has two things going for him, which are dangerous for us:
1) The full might of the federal government, including the US military, and
2) An utter disregard for laws that would prevent him from trying to deploy that might against American citizens.
Can you fucking believe we’re even talking about this????
Almost since he took office, some have been pondering what might happen if there is a disputed election in November 2020, with Trump questioning the results or claiming it was rigged or simply refusing to leave office. I’m one of them, and have written about it over and over. As we approach Election Day, that scenario—once scoffed at by many—looks more worrisome than ever.
Will we see armored personnel carriers in the streets? Protestors looking down gun barrels? American soldiers having to choose what side they are on?
Turns out, we might not have to wait until November.
Rachel Maddow noted this week that Trump has long craved a military parade in DC, with M-1 Abrams tanks rolling down Pennsylvania Avenue. Thus far the Pentagon has delicately thwarted him. But he seems dead set on getting it one way or another.
I am reassured to see eminent retired military figures like General (Ret.) Martin Dempsey and Admiral (Ret.) Mike Mullen—both four-star flag officers and former Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—forcefully and publicly repudiating the very idea of using US soldiers to violently suppress lawful dissent by fellow Americans. In their op-eds, both men also tacitly encouraged those soldiers not to follow unlawful orders, even (or especially) from the Commander-in-Chief. Both expressed their confidence that American soldiers would never act like the fratricidal stormtroopers of a foreign police state.
But I am not so confident that Trump won’t cravenly put those young GIs in that position anyway.
Donald Trump is a liar and a braggart who flings threats as readily as he breathes; those threats therefore carry no weight whatsoever. On the other hand, I don’t put anything past him, so untethered from morality and simple human decency is he.
As Trump boasts about calling up the active duty military (which he has already begun, with the deployment of an MP battalion from Ft. Bragg to DC), please note that the 31st anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre is tomorrow. Here’s what Trump said about it at the time, speaking to Playboy in 1990:
“When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it. Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength…..That shows you the power of strength.”
It could only have been more perfect if he’d said it to Hustler. (Actually, that’s an insult to Larry Flynt.)
I’m here to tell you, I’m concerned about what is going to happen next. I fear it ain’t gonna be a repeat of Bernie Boston’s famous 1967 “Flower Power” photo of a daisies being planted in M-14 rifle barrels with bayonets fixed.
Susan Glasser again. She was writing before Trump emerged from his bunker, but her comments proved pretty goddam prescient:
We don’t know yet how the last few days will reshape Trump or his Presidency. Is this the beginning of a long, hot summer of discord in our cities that will cause a white American backlash of the sort that Trump has long encouraged and embraced?
In the past, Trump has shamelessly stoked racial discord and divisiveness for political gain. He is expert at blame-shifting and dog-whistling. In his tweets on Sunday afternoon, he was already conjuring the spirit of Richard Nixon in 1968 to call for “law and order” as another long night of mayhem looms.
He may briefly hunker down in his White House bunker, but he has never done so for long. If this crisis is like any of the many others in his life, Trump will talk and tweet and tweet and talk no matter how many Americans wish he would just shut up. Irrefutable events, however, are piling up on the Trump Presidency, and, although it is only May, 2020 has already given us an impeachment trial, a deadly plague, and the biggest economic collapse since the Great Depression. We can now add the worst riots in a generation to this election year’s grim bid for the history books. Will that finally be enough to silence Donald Trump?
BURY THE RAG DEEP IN YOUR FACE
I’ve asked myself, and heard many others asking, the obvious question of how this will end. The normal that some want to go back is not possible, and more to the point, not desirable. That sickening “normal” is what prompted these protests in the first place.
But it’s not a simple matter of what will quell the violence and restore the peace.
We can’t ask that without asking what we are going to do to address the underlying hatred, racism, and institutional brutality that has led to the outrage—justifiably—playing out on our streets right now.
Getting Trump out of office (and ideally, into handcuffs) will be but one step, essential but not sufficient. The work has to begin even before we do that, and as part of it, and will continue long after he’s gone. It is predicated first and foremost on we as a people simply recognizing, very belatedly, that we have a severe, soul-wrenching problem and beginning to reckon with it.
Can we do so?
Like they say on TV, stay tuned.
Photo: Donald Trump outside St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington DC. Doug Mills/The New York Times.
h/t Scott Sinkler for the Sinatra reference