2020 has been challenging. A global pandemic has killed over 100000 Americans and counting. The economy, already teetering on the edge from years of deregulation, mechanization, and tilted in favor of the 1%, is in shambles, with record levels of unemployment, the collapse of many small businesses and retail companies, and social distancing rules that will limit production and services indefinitely (slowing recovery). The murder of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police– the latest in a long line of extrajudicial killings carried out by state actors– was the matchstick that turned this trash pile of a year into an all-out dumpster fire. If you are the kind of person who thinks that character is exposed during moments of crisis, the last several months have been very illuminating.
Leadership in a democracy requires many things. Flexibility, compromise, vision, patience, consensus building, surrounding oneself with experts, decisive action, knowing when to accept, and when to buck, your prudent counselors are just a few of the required traits. None of these skills matter in crunch time if you lack one vital character trait: courage. Our most challenging moments require impossibly hard choices. You cannot triangulate your way out of 9/11. You cannot bully and bluster away the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The Great Depression and the 2008 housing collapse are not PR moments to spin or scandals you can simply overwhelm with BS (or wait out until the public loses interest). The impact on everyday life is too great and the reality of the situation is plain for all but the most partisan (or most insulated from the crisis) actors. These moments require somber words, clear thoughts, and a path forward that Americans can rally behind. We are living in one of those moments now.
To say that our current leadership is failing would be an understatement. President Trump fumbled the Covid-19 crisis, paralyzed into inaction in the opening weeks out of fears of how the stock market would respond, he denied that the coronavirus would ever be a big deal in the US. When this obvious falsehood became clear, he pivoted alternatively to blaming China, US governors, Barack Obama, healthcare professionals, mayors, and Democrats in general. He literally said he takes no responsibility for what has happened. Once partial shutdowns and social distancing seemed to slow the spread of the disease Trump declared victory, pretended that he had some role to play in the process, and encouraged people to rebel against their state governments in order to re-open the economy (and in his campaign’s opinion, improve his re-election chances). In doing so, Trump repeatedly baited his followers on Twitter to arm themselves and force their state and local governments to immediately change their shutdown policies, which they did by arming themselves to the teeth and descending on their state capitol buildings, disrupting legislative sessions and shutting down the government. Trump called this liberation. It would be more accurate to call it armed insurrection.
This behavior fits into a pattern Donald Trump has displayed his entire career. Deny reality, blame others for any and all mistakes, claim credit for things you didn’t do, and do whatever is personally expedient for you rather than what might be good for your partners, clients, or fellow citizens. Trump did what he usually does– take the cowards way out.
It did not have to be this way. A courageous leader would have acted immediately upon his own experts telling him a pandemic was coming, saving lives while drawing negative attention in the opening weeks as people bristle against measures that seem over-the-top against a problem that has not yet shown its potency on our soil. The courageous leader would have spoken out in the best interests of the nation rather than play the news cycle in a vain attempt to keep the stock market humming along.
It should come as no surprise that Trump has shown his cowardice in the face of the George Floyd murder. No, I am not talking about Trump hustling off to the bunker in the face of mounting protests in DC (though I admittedly laughed more than I should have at #bunkerbitch trending on twitter last night). The President and his enablers moved quickly to condemn protestors and to encourage hardline tactics by the police. Trump himself has threatened repeatedly to deploy the US armed forces on domestic targets, getting himself flagged on twitter in the process for repeating old racist calls to use state violence against black protestors.
Courageous political and law enforcement leaders saw the moment and rose to it. Genesee County Sheriff Chris Swanson took off protective equipment and rallied his officers around protestors in Flint, Michigan. Police and community working together to protest injustice and demand policy change deescalated the situation and drew positive attention to the cause. After several days of escalating violence in Columbus, Ohio law enforcement reoriented and deployed plainclothes police at the front lines and held the more militarized (and aggressive) riot control forces in reserve, deescalating the situation, lowering tension and violence. These are profiles in courage, by leaders on both sides and the police and protestors alike. They put themselves at risk, physically and politically, in order to improve the immediate lives of all involved and to push for the necessary reforms in how we police our communities (especially our black communities).
This was appropriate and necessary. George Floyd’s murder was heinous. This is what the tyranny of the state looks like and is a perfect example of the structural racism that plagues our law enforcement system. Floyd was suspected of a minor misdemeanor– a petty crime of trying to use a counterfeit bill. For that, he was forcibly removed from a vehicle, manhandled by several cops, sent into physical distress, and eventually choked to death. This story is all too familiar. A black person can be suspected of something minor and non-violent and the police respond with overwhelming and disproportionate force. Sometimes they have done nothing at all. A black man or woman can be doing anything and suddenly find themselves in a potentially lethal situation– from DWB (Driving While Black), to walking down a street the police do not expect to see black people on, to birding in a park, just existing as a black person makes one a potential suspect for overly aggressive police who are all too willing to use force if they feel disrespected or afraid (even if they have no valid reason to be afraid).
White people can show up armed to the teeth to demand their states rescind public health orders meant to stave off a pandemic and the President calls them liberators while the police respectfully standby. Black people show up unarmed to protest the state killing them and the President calls them “THUGS” while the police deck themselves out in paramilitary garb and aggressively push, gas, and beat those who would dare protest their policies and actions, using every action of aggression back to justify getting more and more violent themselves. Protestors, for their part, lose their cool (and maybe egged on by bad-faith actors who are trying to leverage the situation for other purposes) and fight back, ratcheting up the rhetoric and violence again.
A courageous leader would address the nation. They would hear and understand the pain the black community is in and would put together a team of experts to listen and suggest change. They would speak to their own experiences with justice and injustice in America– historical moments they remember, moments from their own lives that are instructive. They’d meet with people in the black community and listen to their concerns. They would show up at protest sites and talk to people. They would propose legistlation or policies that would help put guardrails in against police brutality and bigotry, recognizing that this has been a long-standing problem and it was long overdue to address it. Cowardly leaders would blame local leaders for not cracking down hard enough on these protests of the use of excessive force by the police by … checks notes… using excessive police force to “dominate” them. They might even suggest committing war crimes by using the US military against her own citizens.
Let me be clear and direct: The rhetoric and policy suggestions of Donald Trump, Tom Cotton, and the rest of the enablers in pro-Trump right-wing media are tone-deaf, ignorant, and vicious. They are trying to provoke more conflict and death in a moment where Americans need them to calm and soothe the nation. They are escalating racial, political, and cultural tensions, not because they think it is good for our communities or the nation at large, but because they think that it will score them points with the narrow base they answer to. They are putting personal profit and success before the common good. This moment calls for political courage. All the President and his cronies can muster is their usual craven opportunism.