Imagine this. Donald Trump departs the White House and approaches a group of unarmed demonstrators protesting racial bias in general and the death of George Floyd in particular. He stops and tells them he is listening, maybe engages one or two, agrees that the time has come to stop senseless murders of black Americans by police. Then he calls off the military that has been appointed to clear his path, and instead leads the demonstrators to the damaged St. John’s Episcopal Church. There he holds the Bible and quotes his favorite passage.
It isn't that hard to imagine if you replace Donald Trump with any modern president, any solicitous politician, hell, any human being with a scintilla of empathy and understanding and wisdom. Even Richard Nixon once faced anti-war protesters in Washington. It was, for the most part, a weird exchange, but within it Nixon said "I hope that [your] hatred of the war, which I could well understand, would not turn into a bitter hatred of our whole system, our country and everything that it stood for. I said that I know probably most of you think I'm an SOB. But I want you to know that I understand just how you feel.") He probably didn't, but unlike Trump he wasn't afraid to confront fellow Americans.
I would feel safe in assuming that anyone reading this piece today would have known enough—would have been cognizant enough of humanity and the idea of America—to have done that.
But such simple acts of benevolence are well beyond the understanding of Donald Trump. In his realm compassion is weakness; compromise is failure; the words of the Bible belong in the Bible, not to be used as comfort or wisdom; and the book itself is a prop—a text to hide behind when the situation demands it, then to be put back into his daughter's handbag.
For contrast, I urge you to read the speech delivered by Robert F. Kennedy upon learning of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. It is the words of an educated man, one grounded in the humanities. He was flawed, like the rest of us, but he understood that his money and status did not provide a fence between him and the everyday American, but required him to build a bridge. During that speech he said the following:
My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He wrote: "In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God."
Who is Donald Trump's favorite poet?
Oh I know what Trump supporters will say—poetry is for the elite, the eggheads, the academics, the professors. Nobody reads poetry anymore—in times like these, they will say, the last thing we need is poetry.
I say it's the first thing we need, more than new laws, more than a vaccine, more than testing, more than masks and gloves and curbside delivery. We need a leader with a sense of aesthetics and a love of truth, one who would never have abandoned us while two simultaneous disasters raged—one who would have seen a threat to humanity before the threat to the economy, and dealt with both problems in that order. One-hundred thousand dead and the stock market climbing. Maybe a poet can make sense of this?
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, another populist autocrat, has declared his country open despite the fact that Brazil has recently surpassed Italy in total deaths and that its cases of Covid-19 are rising dramatically. Last Tuesday Bolsonaro simply stated that death is "everyone's destiny." Strategy from the Trump playbook, and though he never said those exact words, his support of the "liberators" in various blue states are proof..as are the 100,000 dead and the climbing stock market.
Donald Trump understands force only, and he's leading the wrong country. Despite the publicized instances of police brutality, most cops see themselves—and act as—peacekeepers. Despite the small but obstreperous gangs of gun-wielding thugs at state houses in April and at Charlottesville in 2017, Americans are peaceable by nature. Rule by brute power is antithetical to us as a nation, but that will not prevent Donald Trump from trying to mold it into a police state. If he wins in November, most peaceable and empathetic—and let's add Bible-quoting and God-fearing—Americans aren't going to like the country they find themselves.