WASHINGTON — President Trump put a nauseating new spin on Bible-bangin’ when he ordered flash grenades and tear gas to be lobbed at peaceful protesters outside of the White House so he could take a picture holding a Bible in front of a church. He has proven himself a Tartuffe of the highest order.
Amid the stampede, still ringing in my ears is the voice that cried out, to nobody in particular, that “There are kids here!” It was 6:30 p.m. on a gorgeous Monday. Surely, Trump’s base was thrilled to the marrow at the sight of him pawing the Good Book while, one block away, teenagers scrambled, even as the president’s own teenager presumably sat inside mere yards away — even as the Episcopal bishop of Washington, D.C., said she was “outraged” by the gambit. (In an extraordinary press conference from the Pentagon on Wednesday morning, Defense Secretary Mark Esper affirmed that he was left in the dark about Trump’s intent to turn the show of force into a photo op, a plan that, according to The New York Times, was hatched in part by Ivanka and Hope Hicks. Esper also broke with the president by saying he didn’t support invoking the Insurrection Act of 1807, which would allow Trump to deploy active-duty troops.)
“It’s a populist move when you hold a gun over your head or carry a bible, and so you see Trump as a full-bore populist in the mode of William Jennings Bryan right now,” said presidential historian Douglas Brinkley.
But by now, Trump must realize that, after four years, it is not just his own base he has been riling up. “Whether he leaves or stays, someone is going to be mad, there will still be rioting,” says an 18-year-old girl named Chloe at Sunday night’s protest, around 5 p.m., while things were still peaceable. Her shirt had a picture of a baby Biggie Smalls on it, and she sat on the roof of a maintenance structure in Lafayette Square that was covered in “Fuck Trump” and “Amerikka” graffiti. (Images of the president later walking in front of it on his way to the church are among the most defining of this whole episode). “If he is re-elected, the country will flip upside down — it’s going to be this, times 10,” Chloe says. Her friend Kai adds, “I don’t know how he got this far in the first place, but he needs to stop.”
Trump was lucky there was even a church left with which to conduct his piety PR campaign. Later Sunday night, the 204-year-old St. John’s, attended at least once by every president since James Madison, caught fire. It happened after a hail of rubber bullets and tear gas forced protesters from the wooded Lafayette Square and onto H Street, directly in front of the church, where they started a bonfire that grew to be 30-feet high. On the next street, helter-skelter whipped down the block in both directions: Black smoke billowed like Krakatoa from a row of flaming cars; the plate-glass windows of the giant union AFL-CIO building cascaded into flower beds; Kawasakis’ braap-ed by like Roman candles. Three white punks, one with blue hair, plopped on a stoop, chain-smoked, and watched the social distortion with intense interest. They seemed to be in their natural habitat.
During the day, the momentum in the capital was mighty. It was core-shaking to feel George Floyd’s name reverberating off the white marble of the Lincoln Memorial. But at night, it felt like being inside a lawless coliseum where anything could happen. There was no way police could differentiate between the pacifists and the malefactors. Many protesters begged desperately with their compatriots not to burn, smash, or hurl. But it was futile. I stashed my press badge in my back pocket after several tetchy confrontations. At points, the animosity for the media burbled over, with news anchors and cameramen being pushed around and screamed at.
Around the corner, I braced for another blast of tear gas as some 50 people barreled my direction. But there was no battalion at their heels. They had simply spotted a Nordstrom Rack, and sailed through the windows while the building’s security officer, a black man, shook his head, resigned to the fact that there was nothing he could do and no one he could call. Nearby, three men pogo-ed out of a jewelry store window, arms laden with treasure. From Capitol Hill to Georgetown, the city was tearing itself apart while Trump sat holed up inside the White House, retweeting Q Anon piddle.
The next morning, on Monday, Ronnie Mervis looked anguished. He was standing in the ruins of his jewelry store, Mervis Diamond Importers. “We believe it was a gang,” he says. “It seemed too organized. They seemed to know what they were doing, they seemed to know where they were going within the store, they managed to get directly into the room where the vaults were. They knew to go there. It couldn’t have just been spontaneous. Video shows that people were all wearing similar, big gas-type masks, they all had hoodies the same color, wearing gloves. It was more than random.” He adds, “I can’t even tell you how I feel. You wouldn’t be able to print it.” Ordinarily, the only people barreling down Connecticut Avenue are blue-and-gray suited lobbyists and lawyers, clutching lattes, not bricks. The thoroughfare was barren Monday but for clusters of construction crews, battening down whatever hatches remained ahead of the night’s coming melee. The Bombay Club and the Oval Room, two restaurants where you’d always see pols and the media elite kibitzing, were boarded up and one was tagged in huge red letters: “The rich aren’t safe anymore!” That weekend was the first time restaurants in D.C. could partially reopen for outdoor seating. “We’ve been going through this terrible time with COVID-19 — now, we can’t open for another month because all the glass companies can’t produce so quickly,” lamented Ashok Bajaj, who owns both joints. I watched Saturday night as the Oval Room became a wrecking room, with crowds starting a fire inside. Bajaj said he couldn’t resist driving down at one o’clock that morning after seeing news footage. “I’m sympathetic to the cause, but it’s also very painful to watch everything you’ve built get destroyed. And I was standing there, watching.”
Piles of soot and cinder and spiderwebbed glass sat in the streets, but in Washington — a town where everything from where you live to where you eat is a political statement — the million-dollar question was already being asked: Will it all help Trump, or hurt him? Politico’s Playbook newsletter was sheepish to muse on the subject, writing that morning, “It seems crass to focus on politics now,” before focusing on politics. But everyone wondered: Which tableau vivant will be the stronger motivator? Will the Grand-Guignol displays of anarchy by night engender support for Trump’s autocratic tantrum? Or will the scenes of peaceful protesters being gassed by day push more people to the polls to vote him out?
Obama blogged on Medium, and Biden would later go on to give a well-received speech on Tuesday from Philadelphia. Democrats were relieved to see him shed the “Man in the Basement” schtick, as David Axelrod and David Plouffe dubbed him last month. “Donald Trump has turned this country into a battlefield riven by old resentments and fresh fears,” said Biden. “Is this who we are?”
Back on planet Monday, by 4 p.m. hundreds were gathered in front of the White House, like The Birds, pecking at Trump, the tangerine-flaked Tippi Hedren who was inside, tweeting, as ever. “Anarchists, we see you!” he wrote just before 2 p.m.
At 4:43 p.m., an emergency alert announcing the new, earlier curfew of 7 p.m. hit hundreds of pockets at the same time. The alert’s eerie aria filled the street and a huge roar of “We can’t breathe!” went up in response. Beyond the barricades, the National Guard members that Trump dragooned to the White House could be seen trooping through the park for the first time. Soon came the mayhem, then the photo op.
After the King’s Guard pushed protesters down 16th Street, they marched past Farragut Square, where up-armored humvees were parked in the middle of the street. Officers announced that the protesters were officially violating curfew and could be subject to arrest, as scores of them climbed up Connecticut Avenue, blaring N.W.A.
But the protest was a headless beast; half split off in another direction. This group trudged through a posh part of town while residents of the apartments above trained their phone cameras down on the marchers. A protester screamed up to a blond, white woman sitting on her balcony, “If you’re not an ally, you’re part of the fucking problem!” The woman gave a vinegary look and sipped her glass of white wine. In an apartment above Nobu, the sushi temple where expense accounts go to die, Tucker Carlson’s face could be seen, oddly distorted, stretched across a huge TV screen. At that very moment, he was using his Ailesian pulpit to appeal directly to the president, saying: “You can regularly say embarrassing things on television. You can hire Omarosa to work at the White House. All of that will be forgiven if you protect your people. But if you don’t protect them, or worse, if you seem like you can’t be bothered to protect them, then you’re done. It’s over. People will not forgive weakness.”
If Trump was watching, it must’ve stung. Reports out of the White House suggest Trump felt so emasculated after being rushed to the underground bunker on Friday night that he orchestrated the field trip to St. John’s church as a show of strength. (Trump insisted Wednesday that it was merely “an inspection” of the bunker.)
The protesters reached the bridge to Georgetown, where businesses including an Apple store were looted over the weekend. To Gerald Rafshoon, the very first political-media wiz and former adviser to President Carter, it brought to mind the racial riots of 1968 following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. At the time, Joe Califano, an adviser to President Johnson, rushed into the Oval Office to alert Johnson that Georgetown was burning, to which the president is said to have replied, “Joe, I’ve been waiting 35 years to see that happen.”
The dwindling crew was cut off by police barricades, though. They turned back into town, where black-hawk choppers circled overhead. As they traipsed across the National Mall, twilight fell and the moon shone on the white marble of the Washington Monument. The old obelisk was flanked on all sides by a ring of officers.
The next afternoon, hundreds protesters were back in front of the White House.