Don’t cross Donald Trump. Trump originally ran for the presidency because Barack Obama mocked him at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2011. He has devoted himself to tearing up every accomplishment, every treaty that Obama signed. Yesterday he was mocked for the revelation that he was conducted into the White House bunker by the Secret Service. Now he has had his revenge. Speaking in the Rose Garden today, Trump declared, ‘If a city or state refuses to take the actions necessary to defend the life and property of their residents, then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for there.’ He indicated that he is prepared to invoke the 1807 Insurrection Act to quash to the protests.
This isn’t rodomontade. Trump approved the simultaneous clearing of Lafayette Park of peaceful protesters by dousing them with tear gas — all so that he could visit St John’s Church with Attorney General Bill Barr for a photo-op. As he strutted across the cleared park, Trump was in full El Jefe mode, accompanied by his gilded flunkies Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper as well as chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff Mark Milley. Indeed, earlier in the day, Secretary Esper declared, ‘I think the sooner that you mass and dominate the battlespace, the quicker this dissipates and we can back to the right normal. We need to dominate the battlespace.’ Battlespace? Since when has America itself been referred to as a battlespace? You would have to go back to the Civil War to think of America as a field of conflict, at least in military terms. The question is whether he would end up looking like Herbert Hoover ordering Douglas MacArthur to attack the Bonus Army in 1932. Absent requests by governors for federal troops civil strife could even be the result. The danger for Trump would be that ends up looking like a paper tiger if the Joint Chiefs of Staff refuse to follow his lead absent congressional authorization.
It should come as no surprise that Trump has adopted a hard line. He has little choice, no matter what Jared Kushner, he of the outward emollient approach, may counsel. Trump has chosen from the outset of his campaign to adopt an uncompromising line against his political adversaries. This is the logical culmination of his presidency. His true enemy is liberalism and liberals and everything they stand for. His only hope for reelection is to mobilize every last member of his base by employing methods that his adversaries will decry as malignant as they are mendacious. This will not trouble him a whit. Quite the contrary. He can continue to bask in the disapprobation of Washington elites.
It would be no small irony if the coronavirus pandemic, which was widely predicted to spell the end of the Trump presidency, ended up proving the trigger for the protests that could inadvertently revive his sagging presidency. After months in lockdown, the real protesters turned out not be on the right but on the left. Their protestations are fueling what might be Trump’s comeback as a law and order president by someone who has been fundamentally lawless for his entire life, whether it is bilking the credulous dupes who subscribed to Trump University or the financial mavens who lent him untold millions, only to watch them vanish in thin air.
At bottom, Trump has always been an escape artist. It is not escapism to think that he might win a second term by riding left-wing protests to victory. The only thing that could really unnerve him would be if the protesters folded their collective tents and refused to provide him with the confrontation that he so fervently desires. Trump essentially promised that he wouldn’t embark upon new and endless wars abroad. But at home is another matter entirely. He wants to be a war president. Will the left oblige him?