Bunker Mentality

We have an overweight pretend Third World macho president who won’t wear a mask because he’s afraid he will come across weak to his followers, some of whom are armed with military style assault weapons that shouldn’t be wielded by civilians among civilians.

We have a would-be autocratic president who thrills like a juvenile when ordering military parades and fighter plane flyovers because he wants to appear strong, like someone with the wrong idea of what the United States stands for.

We have a president who fawns over and rubs up against the world’s dictators like a pleading pet poodle while he denigrates those who, with real strength, are in charge of its democracies but apparently is so insecure that he can’t walk among us.

He can’t face crowds of people unless they are attendees at his raucous rallies of “nattering nabobs of negativism,” to quote a Nixon vice president, Spiro Agnew, who hurled the phrase as a curse against the media.

(A nabob was a Muslim official under the Turkic-Mongol dynasty that ruled northern India from the early 16th to the mid-18th centuries.)

Donald Trump made a big show of walking from the White House past crowds cleared by smoke and a chemical agent to stand in front of fire-damaged St. John’s Church Monday evening, posing with a Bible in his raised right hand, his face twisted into his customary scowl. He used the Episcopal landmark and a holy document as a photo op to make a crude political appeal to his evangelical followers as demonstrators in at least 140 cities protested the police killing of black man George Floyd in Minneapolis, challenging the president’s reign and his chances for re-election.

In that Bible is a book called Ecclesiastes, and if Trump ever read it he would know it begins, “To everything there is a season/And a time for every purpose under heaven.”

So, Trump, who only several nights earlier had been whisked into a White House bunker for his protection against protesters outside, faced a choice: How to play this dramatic moment of venturing from the besieged White House for a walk across on what had been an imagined wild side. Would it be a call to arms or a hand outstretched with an olive branch.

He chose a cheap political stunt as a nod to his religious supporters  only shortly after mimicking President Richard M. Nixon’s “law and order” trademark at a Rose Garden news conference by branding the protesters as terrorists and threatening to deploy federalized National Guard troops to states whose governors he perceived as unable to control violent street demonstrations.

Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, a Trump loyalist, rebelled against his boss two days later, shooting down deploying the military under the 1807 Insurrection Act to quell lawlessness.

“The option to use active-duty forces in a law enforcement role should only be used as a matter of last resort and only in the most urgent and dire of situations,” he said. “We are not in one of those situations now. I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act.”

Ever the pugnacious warrior, a true paper tiger, Trump told governors in a conference call that they should be tough with the protesters. “You have to dominate,” The New York Times reported him saying in a phone call. He warned them “you’re going to look like a bunch of jerks” if the governors don’t heavily deploy the National Guard in their areas.

The negative reaction was swift.

Gov. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, a moderate Republican, said he wasn’t surprised “to hear incendiary words” from the president when he spoke of dominating the protesters.

“At so many times during these past several weeks, when the country needed compassion and leadership the most, it was simply nowhere to be found,” he told reporters in Boston, alluding to COVID-19-inspired nationwide fears and lockdowns, which has killed more than 100,000 Americans. “Instead we got bitterness, combativeness and self-interest.”

Instead of exercising a false bravado, maybe Trump for once could have done something out of the ordinary for him, considering the circumstances, other than spouting divisiveness, hate, signing executive orders that wipe out advances meant to save the environment and imposing rules to weaken regulations.

Maybe he could have taken a courageous presidential step and walk alone, no Bible-as-prop in hand, to the black fence that surrounds the White House after the street had been cleared of most demonstrators and speak softly, quietly, like a father, to some of them or their representatives, if any, once authorities ensured they weren’t armed.

Now that would have been mind-bending. But, then, he appeals to a different crowd, doesn’t he?

“There’s a time to love and a time to hate . . .,” Ecclesiastes says.

This after all also is a time of great loss for millions of Americans that has been brought on by the pandemic and there is much talk in this country of everyone being in this invisible horror together, that it is a shared grief over lost loved ones, lost jobs, lost savings, lost businesses — a time for change to bring more love, not hate, into the world.

Maybe things will be different after November. If we make it until then without another crisis.


Richard C. Gross, who covered war and peace in the Middle East and was foreign editor of United Press International, served as the opinion page editor of The Baltimore Sun.