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Unpresidented

Donald Trump walking past riot police in Lafayette Park
Tom Brenner/Reuters
Donald Trump walking past riot police in Lafayette Park during protests following the police killing of George Floyd, Washington, D.C., June 2020

In “The Jesting of Arlington Stringham,” a story by Saki (H.H. Munro), the eponymous politician in a debate on the Foreign Office in the House of Commons remarks that “the people of Crete unfortunately make more history than they can consume locally.” The United States is experiencing the same excess. More outrage is being perpetrated and felt than can be contained within the existing frame of institutions and discourses. The image of things bubbling over, of energies and emotions that can no longer be enclosed, is physically manifest on the streets, as those who have been privately confined for so many weeks spill out into the public realm. But what there is too much of is not just present injustice. There is a superabundance of the unresolved past.

This sudden enlargement of the public sphere is a response to Donald Trump’s mastery of belittlement. For all his logorrheic meanderings and florid hyperbole, Trump’s method is essentially reductionist, with mocking nicknames (“Crooked Hillary”), three-word slogans (“Lock her up!”), and an entire presidency predicated on four letters: MAGA. It is ironic that, on May 29, just as protests at the killing of George Floyd four days before were spilling out from Minneapolis and spreading nationwide, Trump achieved peak concision with a one-word Tweet that contained what was supposed to be his entire strategy for reelection: “CHINA!” While the country he misgoverns was boiling over, Trump was still boiling down. The American crisis could, he evidently still believed, be reduced to this distillate of foreign perfidy.

A central feature of Trump’s practice of malign minimalism is the erasure of American history. It is not just that his own ignorance (exposed, for example, in his suggestion in February 2017 that Frederick Douglass was still alive) seems almost total. It is that Trump is obsessed with a pseudo-history in which the past exists only as prelude to his own greatness and to the unique evil of his enemies. In the days after George Floyd’s death, Trump tweeted repeatedly about history: “The Greatest Political Crime In the History of the U.S., the Russian Witch-Hunt”; “the greatest political, criminal, and subversive scandal in USA history”; “Our Country has just suffered through the greatest political crime in its history.” He twice tweeted versions of a quote from Fox News host Lou Dobbs describing Trump himself as “arguably the greatest president in our history” and “Absolutely 100% the greatest President in history.” And he claimed that “My Admin has done more for the Black Community than any President since Abraham Lincoln.”

In this demented solipsism, the entire American past is shrink-fitted so that it hugs Trump’s own ample figure, cleaving both to his greatness and to his victimhood as an object of unparalleled persecution. The immediate backdrop for this obliteration of history is the catastrophic failure of Trump’s administration to control the spread of the coronavirus. A word Trump has repeatedly used to characterize both the crisis itself and his allegedly brilliant response to it is “unprecedented.” (He used it twice, for example, in his address to the nation on the pandemic on March 11.) The virus must exist in a temporal vacuum. Nothing like this has ever happened before, so how can Trump be blamed for not being prepared? There is no history of pandemics.

In the world of Trump and the Republican Party, history itself is in lockdown, securely contained and distanced from any threat of infection by reality. Yet the terrible power of the video of George Floyd’s killing lies not just in its almost unbearable brutality. It is in its double sense of temporality. It is measured out in minutes and seconds and in cries: the eight minutes and forty-six seconds that Derek Chauvin has his knee on Floyd’s neck, the sixteen times that Floyd says, “I can’t breathe.” But it is also measured out in centuries. It is the opposite of “unprecedented.” It exists in that excessive history that is produced over and over without ever being fully consumed, the violence against black people that changes its methods but not its intimate, bodily reality. It is just one more strange fruit on the hanging tree whose roots lie deep in the soil of slavery. As Mary Tyrone puts it in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, “The past is the present, isn’t it? It’s the future, too. We all try to lie out of that but life won’t let us.”

And death won’t let us either. The slow, public killing of George Floyd gave the lie to Trump’s attenuation of American history to a tale of his own pain and glory. In December 2016 Trump misspelled “unprecedented” as “unpresidented.” The far too precedented act of violence against Floyd, coming the day after the official US coronavirus death toll passed 100,000, found America disastrously unpresidented, led by a man who can acknowledge the deaths of his compatriots neither en masse nor one by one. Trump described that grim 100,000 number as a “milestone,” a word he had previously used in conjunction with “historic” to hail his alleged achievements: the number of right-wing judges he had appointed, stock market gains, rises in employment. Tombstones, milestones—all timeless monuments to his own unprecedented self.

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.

The unfinished business of the Civil War is the most obvious, shaping as it does both George Floyd’s death and the reaction to it. His killing is just one more episode in the unending consequence of the shredding, in the aftermath of the Civil War, of the promise of equality for black Americans. It is still, all too recognizably, an act of counterrevolutionary violence. It can be understood only as an outcome of the way, after the abolition of slavery, “dominance” was transferred from the plantations to black rural communities and urban neighborhoods. It signifies a fact that has not fundamentally changed since the defeat of Reconstruction: black people can be subjected, usually with impunity, to arbitrary aggression. George Floyd does not, like the man who was his president, have imaginary historical heroes—Lincoln, Churchill—behind him. He has unarmed men, women, and children shot by police and white civilians, lynched, incarcerated en masse, reminded by purposeful terror of their physical and social “place.”

It is striking that the US currently has a president who, so far as we know, has never even read the constitutional amendments (the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth) that emerged from the Civil War. His sometime aide Sam Nunberg told Michael Wolff of being given the job, early in the 2016 presidential campaign, of teaching Trump about the Constitution: “I got as far as the Fourth Amendment before his finger is pulling down on his lip and his eyes are rolling back in his head.” Trump’s knowledge of the Civil War itself can be gauged from his claim in May 2017 that Andrew Jackson (who died sixteen years before it began) “was really angry that he saw what was happening in regard to the Civil War.” This week his preemptive and heavily stage-managed announcement that army bases named in honor of Confederate generals would keep those designations showed how much he fears that even the idea of engaging with the meaning of the war might create anxiety among his base. His understanding of racism was best expressed in November 2018 when the PBS News Hour reporter Yamiche Alcindor, who is African-American, asked him about his apparent embrace of white nationalism: “I don’t know why you’d say that. Such a racist question.”

Donald Trump
Donald Trump; drawing by John Springs

This turning of racism inside-out—the black woman is being racist when she asks a white president about white nationalism—may be absurd but it is not casual. It is fully congruent with the supremacist claim that whites are the real victims of racism. In this regard, it’s worth recalling one of Trump’s earliest direct political interventions. His full-page ads in The New York Times, The Daily News, The New York Post, and New York Newsday in May 1989, headed “Bring Back the Death Penalty. Bring Back Our Police!” marked the beginning of his idea of “American carnage.” Trump declared nothing less than “the complete breakdown of life as we knew it.” The prompt for this jeremiad was the appalling rape and attempted murder of a white woman who had been jogging in Central Park. Trump cited this outrage as evidence of the “dangerously permissive atmosphere which allows criminals of every age to beat and rape a helpless woman.” Five young men—four African-American, one Latino—were wrongfully convicted of the crime.

The assault in this instance was all too real, but the framing of black men for the alleged rape of white women is inextricably woven into the pattern of lynching. Trump may not know much history, but he surely knew the racial resonance of his demand that the guilty men should be physically abused and killed:

I want to hate these muggers and murderers. They should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes. They must serve as examples so that others will think long and hard before committing a crime or an act of violence.

This rhetoric had its own dark history. Trump was not explicit, but he did not need to be: the rape of a white woman leads properly to the killing of black men (whose guilt does not need to be established) as an example to the rest.

Particularly relevant to the present crisis is the way the Central Park assault turned on the notion of racially motivated violence. There was no evidence whatever that the woman was attacked because she was white. But the idea was both irresistible and highly politicized. In the same issue of The New York Times that carried Trump’s ad, a column by Sam Roberts under the headline “Park Rampage and Mayor Race: Fear and Politics,” contemplated the impact of the case on the politics of a city that was about to elect its first black mayor, David Dinkins:

To deny its possible political ramifications is to be blind to expressed fears and frustrations and to underlying, if often unspoken, references to race.

Regardless of whether the brutal rape of a 28-year-old jogger is classified by the police as racially motivated, most New Yorkers don’t need to be reminded that the victim and her assailants happened to be of different races.

It was in this context that Trump elaborated in his ad the underlying belief that shapes his attitude to the killing of George Floyd and other victims of police violence: society is breaking down because the police are not allowed to rough people up anymore:

Let our politicians give back our police department’s power to keep us safe. Unshackle them from the constant chant of “police brutality” which every petty criminal hurls immediately at an officer who has just risked his or her life to save another’s.

This continuity between the Trump of 1989 and the man in the White House in 2020 is also the return of the barely repressed. The complex of images on which he drew in this first big statement on domestic politics—white victimhood, rape, killing black men as an “example” to others, unshackling as a metaphor, not for the end of slavery but for the necessary violence of the police in defense of “life as we knew it” (with no doubt about who “we” are)—is the mental structure within which black men can be done to death by the police and white vigilantes. When people talk of Trump’s id, this is surely part of it. But it is also America’s id, and, through Trump, this putrid leftover from the unfinished Civil War has now reoccupied the seat of power.

Which brings us to the second unfinished war, Vietnam, and its unprocessed consequence: the derangement of the US presidency. On June 2, Trump issued another of his minimalist tweets, which said in total: “SILENT MAJORITY!” The great predecessor he was summoning this time was not Lincoln or Churchill but Richard Nixon, who used the phrase in his televised address to the nation in November 1969. The speech was specifically about the Vietnam war, Nixon appealing to “the great silent majority of my fellow Americans” to stand with him against the antiwar movement. Trump’s own Silent Majority is neither a majority nor silent—his base is a very noisy minority. But his evocation of that speech is more meaningful than Trump can have consciously intended. For Nixon began the address by raising questions of truth and lies:

Many Americans have lost confidence in what their Government has told them about our policy. The American people cannot and should not be asked to support a policy which involves the overriding issues of war and peace unless they know the truth about that policy.

That, though, is precisely what they were never permitted to know. The Vietnam War was conducted through a fog of lies. That sustained campaign of deception—of Congress and of citizens—broke something in the presidency itself. One of the most gifted politicians of the twentieth century, Lyndon Johnson, was shattered by it. Nixon, a formidable operator with a substantial domestic program and a wide popular base, ended up as a political racketeer, authorizing and covering up illegal dirty tricks against his opponents. Watergate was a side-effect of Vietnam.

In 1974 James Mann, a conservative southern Democrat and a member of the committee of the House of Representatives that was considering the impeachment of Nixon for his role in Watergate, explained his support for that process: “If there be no accountability, another president will feel free to do as he chooses. But the next time there may be no watchman in the night.” There is now “another president” who feels “free to do as he chooses.” As Trump told a right-wing student rally in July 2019, “I have an Article 2 [of the Constitution], where I have the right to do whatever I want as president.” The great difference is that the watchman is now a willing accomplice.

Nixon was forced out because Republican-appointed judges and Republican members of Congress joined with Democrats to reassert constitutional checks on the abuse of presidential power. Now the Republican Party is a wholly owned subsidiary of Trump Entertainment Resorts Inc. Trump’s wild response to the coronavirus disaster and to the Black Lives Matter protests must be seen in connection with the refusal of the Republican-controlled Senate even to go through the motions of a trial after his impeachment by the House. “Unshackled,” like he wished the cops to be, from any notion of accountability, Trump has also become unmoored from any relationship to reality.

The Senate Republicans told him, in effect, that he can exercise power arbitrarily. Absolute power deranges absolutely. During the 2016 election campaign, Trump was asked about whom he consulted on foreign policy: “I’m speaking with myself, number one, because I have a very good brain. My primary consultant is myself.” Freed from any need to pretend that there is anyone else he might possibly need to talk to, Trump is now openly talking to himself in public. He is, often on live TV, communing with the voices in his head that tell him that he is a combination of Lincoln and Churchill, that coronavirus will suddenly vanish, that it can be cured by ingesting disinfectant, that Joe Scarborough is a murderer, that George Floyd is looking down on him and rejoicing.

Here, too, there is that sense of a spilling over of history, of the madness that, with Nixon, was revealed to close confidantes in the White House and recorded on secret tapes, now parading itself naked before the world. And perhaps what defines this particular moment in America is its monstrous play on the idea of restraint. Citizens have a dizzying, sickening double vision. On one side of the screen, they see a show of violent restraint: George Floyd pinned down, trapped, immobilized to the point of paralysis while his life is squeezed out of him. The cry that echoes from the past through his voice and into the mouths of the protesters on the streets—“I can’t breathe!”—is the ultimate expression of the terror of absolute confinement. It was Eric Garner’s cry too, when he was dying in a policeman’s chokehold on Staten Island in 2014. What makes it so much more politically potent now is that on the other side of the screen, there is the embodiment of absolute unrestraint, the president’s unchecked exhalation of hallucinatory gibberish.

The third remnant of unfinished war is the runaway momentum of the war on terror. The arrival on the streets of American cities of troops and military vehicles camouflaged for desert warfare provides a stark image of domestication: the war on terror coming home from those hot, dusty places where it is supposed to be fought. Trump and the Republicans have consistently refused to confront or even name actual domestic terrorism, which comes mostly from the white supremacist far right that, as Trump notoriously claimed after the violence in Charlottesville in August 2017, includes some “very fine people.” Repeatedly asked then whether a neo-Nazi killing a young woman there was terrorism, Trump eventually answered: “You can call it terrorism. You can call it murder. You can call it whatever you want.… Because there is a question. Is it murder? Is it terrorism? And then you get into legal semantics.”

Trump was right in one sense: the war on terror has always been a war of definition, and for every US administration since September 11, that power of definition is arbitrary. You can call “whatever you want” terrorism—or not. The semantics are the keys that unlock a vast array of state capacities, up to and including the right to kidnap and imprison people indefinitely without trial, to conduct summary executions, and to invade foreign countries and overthrow their governments. Authoritarian regimes abroad grasped this quickly—once you define your critics as “terrorists,” there is no need for even the pretense of due process. Conversely, if you refrain from using the word, those you approve of—for example, armed white men invading the Michigan state capitol—enjoy complete impunity.

The Republicans wasted no time in exploiting that power of definition: they deliberately subverted the distinction between peaceful protesters and looters, and labeled them all terrorists. This was not merely an example of Trumpian hyperbole—the term was used by many senior Republicans including, most ominously, in a written statement of May 31, by Attorney General William Barr announcing that “to identify criminal organizers and instigators, and to coordinate federal resources with our state and local partners, federal law enforcement is using our existing network of 56 regional FBI Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTF).”

Trump, however, extended the “terrorist” label, not just to “criminal organizers” of violence but also explicitly to the peaceful protesters who were assaulted with chemical sprays, rubber bullets, and flash bombs on Lafayette Square, to clear the way for his Bible-waving stunt at St. John’s Church. On June 4 he tweeted a copy of a letter “from respected retired Marine and Super Star lawyer, John Dowd” with the instruction: “Read it!” Dowd, in this open letter of rebuke to the former defense secretary James Mattis for his criticism of Trump, claimed that “the phony protesters near Lafayette were not peaceful and are not real. They are terrorists using idle hate filled students to burn and destroy.” The logic is clear: the FBI’s terrorism task forces can and should use their sweeping powers and immense resources to investigate the protesters.

And those protesters can also be assaulted on the streets by the police and by uniformed men who are not identified (either collectively or individually) and are therefore impossible to hold to account. In response to images showing police in Buffalo push over and seriously injure a seventy-five-year-old man, Martin Gugino, Trump tweeted that “Buffalo protester shoved by Police could be an ANTIFA provocateur.… Could be a set up?” Trump had already declared his intention to designate “ANTIFA as a Terrorist Organization.” But since Antifa does not actually exist as an organization, anyone engaged in protest “could be” a terrorist. This possibility is enough to make every public opponent of Trump’s regime a legitimate target for state violence. If and when that assault happens, moreover, it is not real. The victim staged it.

This is the final overflow from unfinished war. The word that once described Osama bin Laden and the killers of innocent Americans now extends to citizens protesting the killing of innocent fellow Americans. The concept that is not defined—terrorism—is not bounded. In particular it is not bounded by constitutional or democratic values. Trump, Barr, and the Republicans have cleared the way for a great homecoming: the war on terror, with all of its weapons for the mass destruction of legality, is being fully repatriated.

All of these historical surpluses—the afterlives of slavery, of the deranged presidency, and of the threat of terrorism as permission to set aside legal and democratic rights—have raised the stakes in the present struggle. This mass of unresolved stuff is being forced toward some kind of resolution. That resolution can come in only one of two ways. What has come to the surface can be repressed again—but that repression will have to be enforced by methods that will also dismantle democracy. Trump’s boast that he can do whatever he wants will have to be institutionalized, made fully operational, and imposed by state violence. Or there will be a transformative wave of change. All of this unfinished business has made the United States semidemocratic, a half-and-half world in which ideals of equality, political accountability, and the rule of law exist alongside practices that make a daily mockery of those ideals. This half-life is ending—either the outward show of democracy is finished and authoritarianism triumphs, or the long-denied substance becomes real. The unconsumed past will either be faced and dealt with, or it will consume the American republic.

—June 12, 2020