Remember Donald Trump’s “American carnage” speech?
In in his inaugural address — an opportunity most presidents use to unite and inspire the nation — Trump presented a vision of America so dark and violent it might have been the opening scene from a Batman movie: “Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities, rusted out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation, an education system flush with cash but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge.”
“And the crime, and the gangs,” Trump continued, “and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential. This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.”
But it didn’t stop there. Four years later, Trump’s description of an American hellscape reads like prophecy. Trump has presided over an unimaginably precipitous decline. Disease, economic collapse and violence grip the country from coast to coast.
The carnage is real.
As demonstrators poured into the streets to protest the brutal killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, and the scourge of police violence against black people everywhere, Trump called for more violence:
“You have to dominate. If you don’t dominate, you’re wasting your time,” Trump told a group of governors including Gov. Tony Evers in a phone call, as my colleague Melanie Conklin reported this week. “They’re going to run all over you, you’ll look like a bunch of jerks. You have to dominate, and you have to arrest people, and you have to try people and they have to go to jail for long periods of time.”
Setting the scene
On Monday, Trump’s Attorney General William Barr sent militarized police with rubber bullets and teargas to clear away peaceful protesters outside the White House, along with journalists and Episcopal priests who were standing outside St. John’s Church. All this, just so the president could walk across the street and hold up a Bible for a photo op.
As The New York Times deftly put it in a Wednesday editorial, “The photo op managed to take aim at the freedom of assembly, speech and religion all at the same time.”
We are in new territory.
The course of history was always unpredictable, Jill Lepore writes in her sweeping book, These Truths: A History of the United States, “as irregular as the weather, as errant as affection, nations rising and falling by whim and chance, battered by violence, corrupted by greed, seized by tyrants, raided by rogues, addled by demagogues.”
But America was supposed to be different.
In 1787, the U.S. Constitution established the idea of a government “ruled not by accident and force but by reason and choice,” as Lepore puts it. In a neat metaphor for the shakiness of the American experiment from the start, Lepore describes how the Federalist Papers were published in a newspaper alongside an ad for a young woman and child to be sold into slavery.
The struggle to realize America’s ideals has continued to unfold. The outcome has never been sure.
This is the unanswered question of American history. Lepore writes: “Is there any arrangement of government — any constitution — by which it’s possible for a people to rule themselves, justly and fairly, and as equals, through the exercise of judgement and care? Or are their efforts, no matter their constitutions, fated to be corrupted, their judgement muddled by demagoguery, their reason abandoned for fury?”
We are about to find out the answer to that question, as Trump marshals troops, the openness and legitimacy of the November election is in doubt and our democracy fumbles forward without leadership or a unifying vision.
Rage against the machine
These are scary, dark times, made worse by isolation, quarantine, epic anxiety and blind rage stoked by social media.
Stoking the rage is, unfortunately, going to be at the core of the 2020 election. We already see Trump pandering to his base with his reflexively divisive, racist comments about “thugs” and his eagerness to ramp up the carnage.
And the button-pushing doesn’t stop there. The Lincoln Project, a never-Trump group that has been running ads in swing states, put one on the air this week in Milwaukee featuring the Confederate flag. The ads are calculated to inflame.
Perhaps leaning into outrage will help win the next election for the Democrats.
But it won’t solve our bigger problems.
In a call with reporters on Wednesday, Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Black Earth), promoted a package of bills that the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Progressive Caucus have been working on. It includes one Pocan is drafting that sets uniform national standards and training requirements for police. Pocan is urging Congress to come back for a special session before legislators are scheduled to return on June 30 to address the current crisis.
Another bill likely to be announced this week would fund more military equipment for police forces. Pocan voted against the measure last time it came up, and vowed to “continue to vote against it.”
Pocan denounced the Trump administration’s “power grab” through threats to deploy the military and attacks on protesters and the press.
“Using the military is not going to be what we need,” he said. “What we need to do is show people that we’re going to take some action to deal with racial injustice, that we’re doing something about police violence.”
We need to shine a light on the scourge of violence and murders of African American people by police. We need to take a look at the white supremacist ideology and the authoritarian impulses that are alive and well in our society, not just among Confederate-flag-waving Trump supporters, but in our white-dominated liberal institutions where systemic racism is a toxin.
The writer Kevin Alexander Gray, who ran Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign in South Carolina, says a lot of Americans “don’t have a clear understanding of the history of white supremacy.”
“They don’t differentiate it from bigotry and prejudice,” he adds. “Racism is about a power structure and a system of oppression. It’s not about people saying ‘I’m not a racist,’” Gray points out. Police are “operating under a system of white supremacist power. It’s not that they are individual bigots.”
Gray is working to revive the Rainbow Coalition in South Carolina, to rebuild Jackson’s multiracial progressive movement for social justice, and to help people connect the dots between racial and economic oppression.
People who came lately to the idea of racist violence by police have a lot to learn about history, he says — like how the Insurrection Act Trump invoked this week was used to put down rebellions of enslaved people.
“You know, we did have a Civil War,” Gray says. “Things can get worse.”
Let’s hope they get better.
Dancing in the streets
If we are going to achieve a healthier democracy, a better community, safety and sanity for everyone — especially black Americans who have had enough — we are going to have to reject the radical alienation peddled by Trump, and instead nurture our sense of community, hopefulness, humor and neighborliness.
The desire to reach out and be with other people, to re-establish a feeling of human connection, is part of what is driving people into the streets to protest together. We all long to feel solidarity with one another and to remind each other that we are in this together.
My favorite scene from all the protests in Madison this week was the video taken by Examiner reporter Henry Redman of demonstrators blocking John Nolen Drive in Madison, and then breaking into dance.
Now they’ve got the crowd doing the Cha Cha Slide in the intersection as rush hour nears an end pic.twitter.com/m5TbjLkX4I
— Henry Redman (@henryredrobin) June 1, 2020
Those dancing protesters remind us that we are human beings, motivated by the same feelings of joy, pain and the desire to have fun.
It’s the opposite of the vision of American carnage Trump has been peddling.
And it is the beating heart of democratic revival.
Like the historic protests against former Gov. Scott Walker in 2011, with witty signs, creative costumes, mass pizza orders and slumber parties in the Capitol, even in the midst of crisis, spontaneous democratic action is invigorating and humanizing. It gives us a feeling for what a better society could be. It builds solidarity.
The same is true of the cleanup effort on Sunday in downtown Madison, where a diverse group of citizens activated by Michael Johnson of the Dane Co. Boys & Girls Club came out to sweep up glass, scrub graffiti and show their love for their city. It was “awesome,” as tearful local business owner Steve Heaps of the State Street Chocolate Shoppe put it.
We need more of that. We’ve been locked up looking at our Facebook and Twitter feeds for too long. Social distancing is still the only smart public health policy. But for the health of our democracy, we need to find a way to remind ourselves of all we have in common, to take care of each other and to reject the insane nihilism of the president who is seeking to make carnage out of our communities, our humanity and our democracy.