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Trump’s Desperate, Despicable Diversions

Reality is catching up with President Trump. His failure to take the coronavirus pandemic seriously early on has contributed to the deaths of untold thousands of Americans, which is expected to reach 140, 000 by July 4, with well over 2 million affected. Come November, he will have to defend words that reveal his willful negligence and denial. “We think we have it very well under control,” he said “Five –and those people are all recuperating successfully.” “A lot of people think that goes away in April with the heat.” “It’s going to disappear. One day – it’s like a miracle.” “And we’re prepared. And we’re doing a great job with it. And it will go away. Just stay calm.” He also referred to the coronavirus as the Democrats’ “new hoax.” The importance of testing citizens for the virus, instituting social distancing measures, including staying at home and wearing a mask, all languished until Trump could no longer interpret reality to his liking.

The coronavirus had kept most Americans at a social distance. But that changed. Tens of thousands soon gathered in the streets of cities and towns across American. They flooded public places, protesting the murder of non-resisting black man, George Floyd, by white Minneapolis policeman, Derek Chauvin, who held his knee on Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes, as three other officers watched and stood guard. That brutal murder was preceded by two white vigilantes (a retired Georgia district attorney and police detective and his son) fatally shooting and killing black jogger, Ahmaud Arbery, Louville police ramming in the door of 26-year-old Breonna Taylor’s home and home and lethally shooting her — eight times, and now a white Atlanta policeman shooting and killing 27-year-old Rayshard Brooks as he tried to flee.

Mr. Floyd’s words, “I can’t breathe,” echoed the words of black Eric Garner, who six years earlier, died after saying “I can’t breathe,” as a white Staten Island policeman put him in a fatal chokehold while arresting him. “I can’t breathe” is the historic cry of people of color who are still suffocating under America’s white-controlled hierarchy of access to economic, political and legal power in America.

Major protests over the killing of Mr. Floyd occurred daily in front of The White House. With the pandemic, and then the protests, President Trump’s 2020 election caravan became shaky – as did Trump himself. When the protests grew intense, the Secret Service was reported to have rushed Trump and his family to The White House’s secure underground bunker. That move went against the projected self-image of the tough, “law and order” president, who protested too much in explaining “I wasn’t – I went down during the day, and I was there for a tiny little short period of time, and it was much more for an inspection.” (“Contradicting Trump, Barr says Visit to Bunker Was for Safety, Not an ‘Inspection,’ “ By Peter Baker and Katie Benner, The New York Times, June 9, 2020)

The ongoing protests called for a desperate despicable measure. President Trump arose from the bunker, went to the Rose Garden and announced, “I’m your law and order president and an ally of all peaceful protesters.” Earlier he had called governors “weak” for not “dominating“ protesters, threatened to call in the military to quell the protests, and even said he would unleash “vicious dogs” and “ominous weapons” on demonstrators. He also called peaceful protesters “thugs,” and warned that those who are arrested would receive long jail sentences.

As the “law and order” president was speaking, riot officers and mounted police used tear gas, rubber bullets and concussion grenades to forcibly drive peaceful protesters from Lafayette Square near St. John’s Episcopal Church, across from the White House. The police were aided by military helicopters , which flew dangerouly low overhead also scattering the protesters. It was reported that even a priest of St. John’s Church was driven from the Church patio. (See, “Priest among those police cleared from St. John’s Church patio for Trump visit,” By Justine Coleman, The Hill, June 2, 2020)

When the area was cleared, President Trump, followed by his white entourage, walked to the front of St. John’s Church, where he and five officials posed, with him holding up the Bible, and remaining silent. A reporter asked, “Is that your Bible.” He replied, “It’s a Bible.” With that he and those accompanying him walked back to his fortified White House.

President Trump’s message was clear: the Bible, which has served as a symbol of liberation for oppressed people, was transformed into a symbol of domination. The diversion went over big with Trump’s white evangelical Christian base. As reported, many in his base were “ecstatic.” Evangelical leader Rev. Franklin Graham, for one, wrote on Twitter, “I wasn’t offended – I was encouraged by it.” (“Trump’s evangelical base is ecstatic over the bible photo op, which many other Christian leaders have condemned,” By Mia Jankowicz, Insider, June 4, 2020)

A few days later, President Trump engaged in another desperate despicable diversion, “declaring that the new employment numbers made it ‘a great day for George Floyd.’” He continued: “Hopefully, George is looking down right now and saying this is a great thing that’s happening for our country. . . . This is a great day for him. It’s a great day for everybody,” adding, “This is a great day in terms of equality.” (“President Says Job Report Makes ‘a Great Day’ for Floyd,” Katie Rogers, The New York Times, June 6, 2020)

When PBS reporter Yamiche Alcindor asked President Trump “to describe his plan to address systemic racism, ”he replied, “What you now see. It’s been happening, is the greatest thing that can happen for race relations . . . for the African American community, for the Asian American, for the Hispanic American community, for women, for everything.” When Alcindor “asked how the unemployment numbers for blacks and Asian Americans could be declared a victory,” Trump “rolled his eyes,” and responded sarcastically, “You are something.” (Ibid)

President Trump’s employing of a heavenly fantasy to appeal to his white evangelical Chhristian base reveals his complete lack of empathy for the pain and loss suffered by Mr. Floyd’s family and friends and his lack of outrage over the injustice done to him and them. Portraying Floyd as now in heaven also softens the racist murder of Floyd in the minds of his evangelical base. Here reality is reinterpreted to fit Trump’s narcissistic ends.

Never mind reported data that reveal “Covid-19 has only magnified the systemic inequalities that persist in the United States,” with “nonwhite Americans, especially African Americans . . . hit hard on nearly every front.” (“The coronavirus pandemic is hitting black and brown Americans especially hard on all fronts,” By Harmeet Kaur, CNN, May 8, 2020) On June 11 the Dow fell over 1800 points in response to the spread of the coronavirus in 20 states – a possible foreboding of more economic downturns to come.

The moral ground is shifting under President Trump’s shifty feet. Before, when quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeled during the National Anthem, Trump reveled in urging NFL owners to fire players engaging in disrespecting the flag: “Get that son of a bitch off the field right now!. Your fired!”

But the juxtaposition of the photo of Officer Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck until after he died with the photo of Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the National Anthem to protest police brutality against people of color must have unnerved Trump as he was “inspecting’ his bunker. Making it worse is NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell now reported as doing an about face in “admitt[ing] the league had been wrong to ignore players who spoke out against police brutality and encouraged peaceful protests, a remarkable reversal cast against the league’s recent exile of quarterback Colin Kaepernick.” (“NFL says it was wrong in handling of protests over racial injustice, encourages players to speak out,” By Mark Maske and Adam Kilgore, The Washington Post, June 5, 2020)

If that were not enough, politicians (mostly Democrats) and even some police are now kneeling in support of Black Lives Matter. Also, on June 5, the mayor of Washington D.C., Muriel E. Bowser, “renamed a street in front of the White House ‘Black Lives Matter Plaza,’ “ and had “Black Lives Matter” painted in big yellow letters” across two blocks “on 16th Street near the White House.”

Even Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley apologized for participating in the photo op staged by Trump in front of St. John’s Church. He said that his “presence in that moment and in that environment created a negative perception of the military involved in domestic politics. (‘GENERAL REGRETS JOINING PHOTO OP STAGED BY TRUMP,’ By Hellene Cooper, The New York Times, June 12, 2020)

There is more bad news for President Trump. Recent surveys show that support for Black Lives Matter has increased by a ”28-point margin” and that “recent protests enjoy broad public support.” Also “a Monmouth University poll found that 76 percent of Americans consider racism and discrimination a ‘big problem,’ up 26 points since 2015.” (“On Black Lives Matter, the Public Has Quickly Moved to the Left,” By Nate Cohn and Kevin Quealy, The New York Times, June 11, 2020) And a reported “majority of voters in several polls disapprove of his handling of the coronavirus and recent protests over police brutality and racism.” (“Poll numbers are adding up against Trump,” By Liz Goodwin, The Boston Globe, June 14, 2020)

Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde, bishop of the Washington Episcopal Diocese, reclaims the moral ground that President Trump desecrated in forcibly removing peaceful protesters so that he could hold up a Bible for a photo op in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church. In a New York Times opinion piece titled “Trump’s Outrageous Church Visit, ”she wrote, “Had the president opened the Bible he was holding, he could have read passages calling on us to love God and our neighbor, to seek God in the face of strangers and even to love our enemies.” She continued: “He could have read exhortations calling us all to the highest standard of love, which is justice.” (June 6, 2020)

As the November election nears, President Trump will be resorting to more dangerous diversions to distract attention from his narcissistic and racist presidency. Like Bishop Budde – and PBS reporter Yamiche Alcindor – more faith leaders need to confront Trump and his white evangelical Christian base with reality and moral truth. Religion isn’t worshiping what the prophets did, but doing what the prophets worshiped.

More articles by:

Rev. William E. Alberts, Ph.D., a former hospital chaplain at Boston Medical Center is both a Unitarian Universalist and United Methodist minister. His newly published book, The Minister who Could Not Be “preyed” Away is available Amazon.com. Alberts is also author of The Counterpunching Minister and of A Hospital Chaplain at the Crossroads of Humanity, which “demonstrates what top-notch pastoral care looks like, feels like, maybe even smells like,” states the review of the book in the Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling. His e-mail address is wm.alberts@gmail.com.  

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