Trump is playing with fire rather than leading

As political theater goes, President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden leads Trump by 36 points nationally among Latinos: poll Trump dismisses climate change role in fires, says Newsom needs to manage forest better Jimmy Kimmel hits Trump for rallies while hosting Emmy Awards MORE’s stunt to clear peaceful demonstrators away from in front of the White House with overwhelming force to enable a photo-op was a disaster of incompetence and thoughtless public relations. Unfortunately, it also is an example of how this weak president plays with the fire of racism rather than provide leadership in a time of trouble.

The image of Trump holding up a Bible in front of a church to polish his image as a champion of Christianity plays his religious admirers for fools. As he posed by the church, he spoke not a word about faith, prayer or forgiveness. This is the same Trump who demanded that churches re-open in a pandemic, then went to the golf course on Sunday rather than attend church himself.

Trump and his handlers failed to consult the Episcopal Diocese of Washington before staging his act in front of historic St. John’s Episcopal Church across Lafayette Park from the White house. Right Rev. Mariann Budde, the Episcopal Bishop of Washington, was outraged at Trump’s use of the church for purely partisan political theater.

ADVERTISEMENT

“Everything he has said and done is to inflame violence,” said Budde. “We need moral leadership, and he’s done everything to divide us.”

Trump’s willingness — even eagerness — to misuse American security forces for political gain is troubling to say the least. His strut to the church — with Attorney General William BarrBill BarrSunday shows - Ruth Bader Ginsburg's death dominates What Attorney General Barr really said about justice Pelosi: House will use 'every arrow in our quiver' to stop Trump Supreme Court nominee MORE, Secretary of Defense Mark EsperMark EsperTop admiral: 'No condition' where US should conduct nuclear test 'at this time' Overnight Defense: Trump hosts Israel, UAE, Bahrain for historic signing l Air Force reveals it secretly built and flew new fighter jet l Coronavirus creates delay in Pentagon research for alternative to 'forever chemicals' Oldest living US World War II veteran turns 111 MORE and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Miley in tow — used law enforcement and military leaders as props in a political action. Trump was trying to look strong. But this is the style of petty dictators, not of a serious democratic leader.

To the extent Esper and Miley were aware of Trump's plan, they should have opposed it. Authorizing the use of the U.S. military to disrupt the peaceful expression of free speech by American citizens would be a violation of their oaths to uphold the Constitution.

Rather that deal with the problem in a serious way, Trump has simply fallen back on habit — he threatens, berates others and then finds a scapegoat. It’s like Ground Hog Day for policy solutions. 

When Trump promotes “MAGA night at the White House” — in the context of race protests and his claim protesters would be met by “the most vicious dogs” — it’s not coded whispering to extremists, but a call to arms among his would-be right-wing vigilantes. Thankfully, they didn’t heed that call. But Trump’s habit of baiting violence could — in this context — produce confrontations that make Charlottesville look peaceful.

ADVERTISEMENT

It’s playing with fire.

Trump might think a racial confrontation would make himself and his supporters look decisive and powerful. The problem is that he is not capable of the leadership required to control or contain such an explosive situation.

The confrontation with demonstrators near the White House was not about effective national policy or effective leadership. It was an ill-conceived distraction.

The Trump administration’s failure to effectively confront the COVID-19 virus still plaguing the nation was only compounded by his failure to lead after the death of George Floyd and the resulting nationwide protests. National leadership falls once again to the affected state governors who — as with the COVID-19 response — must independently struggle to find solutions.

Increasingly, Trump’s statements and actions seem to be a combination of juvenile personal impulses and election panic rather than thoughtful national policy.

We can only hope that those around Trump do not pander to his destructive personal impulses but contain them before he makes an explosive situation worse for the nation. That’s a very big expectation for a group seemingly unaccustomed to the task.

James W. Pardew is a former U.S. ambassador to Bulgaria and career Army intelligence officer. He has served as deputy assistant secretary-general of NATO and is the author of "Peacemakers: American Leadership and the End of Genocide in the Balkans."