There was a moment on Saturday afternoon when President Trump stood on a rooftop in Florida for what could have been a sorely needed moment of national unity. A made-in-the-U.S.A. spacecraft was about to blast off from Cape Canaveral, bound for the International Space Station with astronauts aboard, the first time an American craft had done so in nine years. Trump was so eager to witness the launch that he had flown to Florida twice, first for a scrubbed effort, on Wednesday, and then a return, on Saturday. In the short time between launch attempts, the country, already struggling with the death of a hundred thousand Americans from COVID-19 and concurrent economic devastation, had exploded over the police killing of George Floyd. Captured on video, the horrific act in Minneapolis led to days of protest, chaos, and looting. When Trump arrived in Cape Canaveral, though, he seemed to want a campaign ad, not a moment of American reconciliation, and soon after he walked onto the rooftop, the song “Macho Man,” by the Village People, a staple of his campaign rallies, began blaring from the speakers. The spectacle of a florid disco tribute to the President at such a time could not have been more discordant, or the message clearer: it’s all about Trump. It always is.
Trump loves such theatrical displays of Presidential power. He believes that you project strength by proclaiming it—that if you say you are macho, then you are. But, on this violent, tragic weekend for America, there was no narcissistic photo op that could obscure the reality that he is a deeply unpopular, deeply insecure politician, who is struggling, as never before, to lead his divided country. A few hours later on Saturday, after Trump flew back to Washington from Florida, he retreated for the night behind the high walls of his fortified executive mansion, defended from an angry crowd by a heavily armed swarm of riot police and National Guardsmen. For twelve hours, Trump said and tweeted nothing, as the fires raged outside, and as the “American carnage” of his strange, apocalyptic Inaugural Address finally seemed to become manifest in televised images of a country at war with itself and plagued, once again, by its long and awful history of racism and police abuse. Trump did not offer new versions of his race-baiting tweets of Saturday morning, about “vicious dogs” and tough-guy tactics, to stop the riots. Nor did he mention the pro-Trump crowd of counter-protesters he had sought to summon that morning to the White House, but which had entirely failed to materialize. The Macho Man did not seem so alpha anymore.
By midday Sunday, of course, Trump was back to being Trump, even as the piles of broken glass were still being swept away from the front of expense-account restaurants and fancy hotels and A.T.M. machines in the blocks around the White House. As joggers snapped pictures of the fresh “Fuck Trump” graffiti across the street, the President was back to fulminating on Twitter about the “Lamestream Media” and “FAKE NEWS.” He was blaming the mayor of Minneapolis and “radical Left Anarchists” for the nation’s troubles, chiding leaders of “Democrat run Cities and States,” and mocking his November opponent, “Sleepy Joe” Biden. He was claiming legal power that he does not have to designate the loosely organized, leftist Antifa movement as a terrorist organization. He was back, in other words, to being the almighty President of his public conjurings, the fulminating would-be autocrat who loves nothing more than to ramble on about his “absolute right” to do just about anything, whether he has that right or not.
But the silent, hunkered-down Trump of America’s ruinous Saturday night is no less real than the Sunday-afternoon Twitter bully Trump, who has monopolized our public stage for the last five years. His desire to be the omnipresent macho man of our public life obscures his very real impotence in the face of indisputable events, like the killing of an innocent black man—or the outbreak of a deadly once-in-a-century pandemic. Now seems to be a rare instance when the hard cold unpleasant facts of what is happening in America have intruded in a most unwelcome way on the Trump Presidency. He is lagging in the polls five months before the Presidential election and, despite trying desperately for the last two and a half months, he has not succeeded in distracting Americans from the awful new normal imposed on our society by the coronavirus and his Administration’s botched handling of it.
We don’t know yet how the last few days will reshape Trump or his Presidency. Is this the beginning of a long, hot summer of discord in our cities that will cause a white American backlash of the sort that Trump has long encouraged and embraced? In the past, Trump has shamelessly stoked racial discord and divisiveness for political gain. He is expert at blame-shifting and dog-whistling. In his tweets on Sunday afternoon, he was already conjuring the spirit of Richard Nixon in 1968 to call for “law and order” as another long night of mayhem looms. He may briefly hunker down in his White House bunker, but he has never done so for long. If this crisis is like any of the many others in his life, Trump will talk and tweet and tweet and talk no matter how many Americans wish he would just shut up. Irrefutable events, however, are piling up on the Trump Presidency, and, although it is only May, 2020 has already given us an impeachment trial, a deadly plague, and the biggest economic collapse since the Great Depression. We can now add the worst riots in a generation to this election year’s grim bid for the history books. Will that finally be enough to silence Donald Trump?