Why This Time Is Different

Years of polite protests against Donald Trump could not do what this movement might accomplish.

A crowd of protesters holding up Black Lives Matter signs
A Black Lives Matter protest in New York City on Tuesday. Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty Images

It’s probably not a coincidence that the legal words spiraling through the ether today are either in Latin or just plain archaic: posse comitatus, Insurrection Act, “no quarter” orders. This is not the nomenclature of the Trump era, which has tended to coalesce around such concepts as “Stupid Watergate” or “Cheeto in Chief.” This is the language of the founding era, of the Civil War, of revolution and wartime. And that’s because, as much as President Donald Trump may believe that people have taken to the streets—in the midst of a lethal pandemic—to protest him and his policies, the very opposite is true. These protests we are seeing are not specific to Donald Trump. Yes, they are complicated and multifaceted, seeded in some cases with white supremacist agitators and gratuitous police violence that is enabled and cheered by Donald Trump. But these protests are at bottom about the original sin of slavery, inequality, and police powers used in their service.

Don’t get me wrong—Trump doesn’t make anything better. Just as Trump himself didn’t cause COVID-19, he is still surely culpable for the incredibly insufficient federal response, leading to tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths. Neither did Trump cause systemic and invidious race discrimination in a nation founded on the same, though he is certainly going to react as poorly and recklessly as possible to the protests unfolding on the streets. But that still doesn’t make this about him.

For years now I have been asking what it would take to have Americans on the streets under Trump, and for years I have attended well-meaning marches, with ironic signs amid well-meaning, mostly white liberals, that received little attention and changed nothing. Those marches were important, they served as warnings and democratic markers, and they kept many of us sane. But I now see that I was wrong about why people take to the streets, because those were Trump protests, and Trump doesn’t matter.

The paradox of the Trump presidency is and has always been that Trump is tiny, far too tiny to matter, and also that he is at the epicenter of everything. The central koan of the Trump era was always How did someone so small come to matter so much? And because “don’t pay attention” doesn’t work when the guy you’re meant to be ignoring has the nuclear codes, it was a loop from which we couldn’t extricate ourselves. So long as we believed that Trump was the cause of the problem, we were doomed to our civil outings around Foley Square, as the police stood mildly by, and guys sold quirky anti-Trump buttons from pushcarts.

But Trump was never the cause of the problem; he is the result of the problem. As Bryan Stevenson explains (for the thousandth time), there is not one single thing about the death of George Floyd that is remarkable or new. Not the killing in plain sight, not the complicity of the officers on site, and not the fact that it was captured on video. “Everything we are seeing is a symptom of a larger disease,” Stevenson says. “We have never honestly addressed all the damage that was done during the two and a half centuries that we enslaved black people. The great evil of American slavery wasn’t the involuntary servitude; it was the fiction that black people aren’t as good as white people, and aren’t the equals of white people, and are less evolved, less human, less capable, less worthy, less deserving than white people.” The killings of George Floyd or Breonna Taylor or Ahmaud Arbery all could have happened in the Obama administration. Killings did happen then. The fact that the current president has praised Nazis and given succor to white supremacists didn’t cause this week’s mass protests; it merely coincides with them.

Because Donald Trump is so laugh-out-loud absurd, so vain and fussy and so lacking in substance, protesting him was never quite serious. It was important, yes, and the policies he has enacted do real harm to real people, harm that should be loudly denounced. But these protests always had a bit of a street festival quality to them: Look at the silly carnival barker and laugh at his bad spelling and his bad hair and his poor captive wife. Even as he was stealing migrant children from their parents and locking them in iceboxes, the fundamental stupidity of the president was still center stage. But even these protests, often featuring tens of thousands of protesters, didn’t break through precisely because the predominantly white people in them could fist-bump the cops as we politely and whimsically strolled by.

Most Americans intuitively understand that Donald Trump, with his failures of cognition or compassion and his incomplete theory of mind, was a symptom and not a cause of America’s original, founding sin. Protesting a symptom occupied us for a while. But protesting the sin itself is what has finally brought people to the streets, in a sustained and combustible way. Why bother protesting a reality show when reality itself is a daily nightmare? Long before the advent of the Donald Trump presidency, Chief Justice John Roberts and his colleagues declared America “over” its racism problem. Long before the advent of the Trump presidency, police departments were hiding evidence of wrongdoing and exonerating and protecting the worst malefactors.

Now, law enforcement is armed with military weapons, military leaders are parading around D.C. in uniform, the free press is being punched, and protesters are being tear-gassed and pepper-sprayed by state actors who insist there was no tear gas or pepper spray. Just as the coronavirus again instructed us all on how America’s racism savages black lives and black livelihoods disproportionally, these protests are a master class in the same. The brokenness is centuries in the making.

Things are very bad, and they will get worse. They will get worse because Donald Trump’s weakness and vanity have made space for authoritarianism to creep in all around him, at a politicized Justice Department, and with a complicit GOP. The nation is shuddering to a crisis because Trump has enabled and allowed every single element of authoritarian rule to flower around him, and because even if you just play a strongman on TV, a compliant police state can happily comply to make it reality. This too was invisible to many of us, amid the preening and the clowning, but it has certainly happened.

Things will also get worse because Donald Trump believes this is about him. That is why he has enrolled the military and the National Guard and why we are talking, suddenly, about posse comitatus laws and “no quarter” orders. It is also the reason he needed to catwalk his way to St. John’s Episcopal Church on Monday night, with state actors assaulting peaceful protesters in Lafayette Square to do so. Donald Trump didn’t create the problems of racialized policing or overincarceration or grotesque inequality or a media ecosystem that forgot to cover Joe Biden this weekend because #ratings. But he has benefited and profited and profiteered from all of it, each and every day, to the point that he now finds himself in the unique position of being in charge of it now. Perhaps it is just subconscious, but he might even realize that those exact things are being protested—these underlying life-and-death truths about life in America, and by that I do mean this nation’s foundation upon white supremacy—that made it possible for Donald Trump to become president in the first place. And he might be most threatened when the target is not him specifically, but the very world that makes him possible.

The other lingering koan of the Trump years is how he has inevitably managed to take credit for things outside his control (the Obama economy) and also to accept no responsibility for things he caused directly (doctors and nurses without personal protective equipment). The present moment has scrambled that equation as well. Donald Trump didn’t cause the death of George Floyd and the resulting outrage, but if he has his way, he will now cause a historic suspension of civil liberties, the arrests and deaths of peaceful protesters, mounting assaults on journalists, and the militarization of policing around the country. I have no idea what will come in the next few days and weeks, but it may be violent and painful, and we should recall that for millions of Americans who are out on the streets, daily life has been violent and painful for a very long time.

Donald Trump is going to make everything that was already bad much, much worse in the days to come. But we aren’t just spectators anymore. There are no orange Cheeto signs on the streets because he was the culmination of a centurieslong sickness, not the cause of it. This moment is not about him, but about what created him, and whether we can finally break the spell.

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