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Opinion: Trump wants armed conflict. Don’t give it to him

United States Park Police push back protesters near the White House
United States Park Police push back protesters near the White House.
(Roberto Schmidt / AFP-Getty Images )

America is in peril tonight. The days and hours ahead could define our nation, in the same way that the turmoil of 1968 did.

Today, President Trump took another page from the authoritarian playbook, threatening to deploy active-duty troops to quell the unrest that has roiled dozens of American cities. Even by the depraved standards he has set, this is a new low. It risks exacerbating the tragic violence and loss of life that have marred the legitimate and necessary protests that erupted a week ago following the death of a black man, George Floyd, in the custody of four Minneapolis police officers.

It is shocking even to write these words, but Trump does not abide by the constitutional norms of our democracy, and we must stop pretending that he can or will. His style is that of the demagogue and the strongman — and the only thing he understands is confrontation and spectacle, as was evinced on Monday night when law enforcement officers fired tear gas on peaceful demonstrators in Lafayette Park in Washington so that Trump could walk from the White House to St. John’s Church in what he no doubt believes to be a show of strength.

This would be comparable to the conduct of a truculent teenager, were it not for the enormous might of the military Trump commands, and his total lack of the temperament, character and ability to carry out his oath to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution.” Our president has become the greatest living threat to that document, and he risks provoking a crisis unlike any since our nation’s basic law was enacted in 1787. Military deployment in support of law enforcement should be contemplated only as a last resort, and only if state officials have requested it.

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America is an experiment. Our country is not a nation-state founded on an ethnic identity — sorry, white supremacists — but a democratic and constitutional republic based on a set of ideas, chief among them the rule of law, not of men. Yet the Constitution has often failed us. It took the Civil War, and the loss of 620,000 American lives, to begin to overcome our country’s original sin: the denial of the humanity and equality of enslaved people of African descent. It took the turmoil and suffering of the Depression to bring about a modern welfare state, with protections against old-age poverty. It took the sacrifice and struggle of the civil rights movement to advance the unfinished work of Reconstruction.

Trump’s actions tonight risk turning our democracy — flawed as it is, ever a work in progress — into a failed experiment. We must not give him the perverse satisfaction we know he craves. We must avoid the slide into authoritarianism, and the erosion of democratic institutions and values, that his actions threaten. We must turn out in protest — peacefully, purposefully — but we must also stop and condemn anyone who would exploit this fragile moment to sow mayhem and disorder.

If we give in to violence, we know how this story ends: consolidation of state power, further moves toward autocracy and censorship and a slide into dictatorship. This is how democracies die.

The causes of our democratic erosion are many: decades of rising inequality; stagnation of wages and loss of economic opportunity; growing mistrust of all institutions, since the era of Vietnam and Watergate; hyper-polarization, exacerbated by new technological platforms such as Facebook; race-based disparities in health, wealth, income and opportunity; reduced confidence in the integrity and validity of our elections; and, perhaps most tragic, a loss of faith among young people that nonviolent social change, via democratic processes, can bring about improvements to the human condition.

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Our system of education has left too many young people ill-equipped, and, by extension, our country insufficiently prepared, to compete globally.

It is not too late to pull back from the brink. Reviving our economy in the midst of a pandemic that has claimed more than 100,000 American lives, and resuscitating our democracy after decades of institutional and moral erosion, will be the work of years, if not generations. But it has to start somewhere. It has to start today.

We sleep tonight fitful and restless, glued to our smartphone or TV screens, numbed by the staggering suffering that has brought America closest to the brink of chaos since 1968.

The young people marching in the streets of America’s cities — from Minneapolis to Birmingham, Ala., from Los Angeles to Columbus, Ohio — were not alive then. Nor was I.

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But we can and indeed must absorb its lessons if we are to avoid calamity.

If you are a young person reading this, please know that your anguished demands for justice have been heard. If you are a parent, guardian or relative of a young person, please keep them close to you. If you are tempted to rob, steal, vandalize or loot, please listen to George Floyd’s brother, who moved us all with these simple words: “That’s not going to bring my brother back.” If you are next to someone who wants to rob, steal, vandalize or loot, stop them with all your might.

By all means, flood the streets during the day, and engage in righteous struggle — “good trouble,” in the words of Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who put his body on the line so that African Americans could have the right to vote. But at night, please go home. Heed the curfews. Obey lawful orders. Don’t give Trump the crackdown that he is itching to mete out. Your voice is too important right now to be silenced. And when this is all over, vote like your life is on the line — because it is.


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