Seth takes a closer look at President Trump threatening to unleash the military on American citizens protesting the brutal police murder of George Floyd.
The president brandishes a Bible in front of a church, in search of a divine mandate that isn’t coming.
Late Monday afternoon, President Trump emerged from the White House and strode in the cool spring daylight to St. John’s Church in Lafayette Square. It was supposed to be an act of defiance: Mr. Trump has bristled at the observation that during the protests roiling the capital he has burrowed into a fortified bunker rather than addressing the nation.
Like most performances arranged by Mr. Trump and associates, it made only a disjointed sort of sense. Yes, the president’s decision to march through the heart of the city’s unrest caused police and National Guard units to blast a peaceful crowd with tear gas and rubber bullets, carving a punishing path to the steps of St. John’s. But the show of force seemed to emphasize only that his legitimacy has shrunk to the point that he feels moved to dominate his own people with military power.
As he took up his post before the church, which was partially boarded up after a minor fire that broke out during a recent protest, Mr. Trump set his face in a stony scowl and held up a black Bible, tightly closed. “Is it your Bible?” a reporter shouted. “It’s a Bible,” Mr. Trump said neutrally. The entire routine was vulgar, blunt: There Mr. Trump was, holding aloft this mute book — neither opened, cited, nor read from — in the shadow of a vandalized church, claiming the mantle of righteousness.
After all, that was what he had come to do. A ruler maintaining order strictly by brute force has a problem. Such regimes are volatile and fragile, subject to eruptive dissolution. Mr. Trump may lack the experience or interest to even pantomime genuine Christian practice, but he has acute instincts when it comes to the symbolism of leadership. He seemed to know, as he positioned himself as the defender of the Christian faith, that he needed to imbue his presidency with some renewed moral purpose; Christianity was simply a convenient vein to tap.
“I think that’s a standard trope in American political frames of reference,” Luke Bretherton told me on a Monday night phone call. Mr. Bretherton, who is a professor of moral and political theology at Duke University’s Divinity School, cited Cold War efforts to demonize socialism as viciously atheistic and amoral. It was work undertaken with anxious eagerness precisely because socialist criticisms of American life were substantial and compelling.
So it goes with the protesters who have gathered to condemn the murder of George Floyd and the murders of others like him, black men and women slaughtered in America’s streets and in their homes by those entrusted with the force of its laws. Their moral case is clear, urgent, compelling. In Mr. Trump’s eyes, Mr. Bretherton said, “there’s only one way to combat that symbolically: “To claim divine sanction for what amounts to a declaration of martial law.”
Of course Mr. Trump is uninterested in the particularities of the Christian religion. St. John’s is a liberal Episcopal church, whose presiding bishop, Michael Curry, has vehemently condemned the stunt. (In a twist of bitter irony, the church’s sign posted behind Mr. Trump stated that “all are welcome.”) On Tuesday the president visited the Saint John Paul II National Shrine, a holy space maintained by the Knights of Columbus, in honor of the pope whose blood resides in the shrine as a relic for veneration by the faithful. Mr. Trump is, of course, not Catholic; like the macabre parade in front of St. John’s, this is just an attempt at recruiting a vague Christian pastiche as the moral core of his authoritarian efforts.
Christian leaders ought to condemn this blatant prostitution of the glory of God. Some, like Mr. Curry, will; others won’t, either because of their own political allegiances or fear of Mr. Trump’s wrath. But the most worrisome prospect is that it won’t matter at all what Christian leaders do; Mr. Trump doesn’t need them to stake his claim.
“It’s significant that Trump did this alone,” Mr. Bretherton observed. Unlike prior presidents who sometimes appeared on grave occasions with priests or pastors, Mr. Trump “doesn’t need a Billy Graham figure to give divine sanction. He doesn’t need a priestly figure. He himself can be the mediator.”
And yet it is still worth saying that the Christian faith does not condone the wanton destruction of human life or the presumption of God’s blessing by any earthly power. At the heart of the faith is servitude, not domination; Mr. Trump, hoisting the Bible aloft like a scepter, clearly has other plans.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus Christ is tempted by Satan three times, and the final temptation is this: dominion over “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.” Christ rejected the offer, scripture holds; “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only Him,” he rebuked the Devil. But it wouldn’t have been a temptation if it weren’t in some way enticing. One imagines that Lucifer didn’t retire the gambit because of the one defeat and that in his years of similar propositions, he must have had many takers.
There is a certain image that Canada projects to the world, one that is particularly compelling to Americans. It’s the image of Canada as a tolerant, progressive, kind and humanitarian nation, populated by mild-mannered and polite people.
.. The idea of Canada the Good — a Scandinavian-style socialist democracy, with the added bonus of multicultural harmony — is an attractive one, helpful in providing Canadians with some kind of national identity, and left-leaning Americans with a handy rhetorical device for political arguments: Look at what’s possible, right next door!
.. But it’s worth remembering that this image of Canada, currently personified by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, is a relatively recent construction, largely put forth by Mr. Trudeau’s father, former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. Before that — and for most of the intervening years, between Trudeaus — the public face of Canada has looked a lot like, well, Jordan Peterson.
.. Canada is home to many more Jordan Petersons than Justin Trudeaus.
.. Mr. Peterson is — to use one of his favorite terms — something of a national archetype, the default setting of the Canadian male: a dull but stern dad, who, under a facade of apparent normalcy and common sense, conceals a reserve of barely contained hostility toward anyone who might rock the boat.
.. those who make a fuss are bothersome and ignorant at best, and probably dangerous and destructive too.
.. This is how “peace, order and good government” came to be the Canadian answer to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
.. Charisma is suspect here, and when Mr. Peterson uses that word to describe Mr. Trudeau, it’s not a compliment.
.. Suspect, too, is any whiff of revolutionary spirit. Pierre Trudeau might have technically been a liberal, but he was the kind of liberal who declared martial law in 1970 when a bumbling handful of Quebec separatists were deemed enough of a threat to justify suspending civil liberties en masse.
.. Our politics reflect our sense of unease with anything radical.
.. Liberals who think of Canada as a lefty haven should look to our most recent federal election: the New Democratic Party, ostensibly the major party farthest to the left, ran its last campaign on a platform of balanced budgets and fiscal responsibility. Not even the Green Party dares to suggest divesting from Alberta’s oil sands.
.. On every issue, from peacekeeping to pipelines, carbon targets to Indigenous relations, Mr. Trudeau has largely continued the policies set by his predecessor.
.. Canadian conservatism is not brash. It not belligerent, it is not loud. It is not Fox News. But our most popular columnists all deliver the same message: Things are the way they are for a reason. Those who agitate for change are stepping out of line.
.. He reserves particular ire for young activists. “I tell 18-year-olds: Six years ago you were 12 — what the hell do you know? You haven’t done anything,” he says. “You don’t have a degree, you haven’t finished your courses, you don’t know how to read, you can’t think, you can’t speak.”
“It’s just not right,” he says, “to tell people in that situation that they should go out and change the socioeconomic structure of the culture!”
.. Delivered as a fiery sermon, this impassioned plea for humility and self-improvement gets laughs from Peterson fans. But in practice, it’s actually an argument for submission to the status quo that would have prevented any number of people, from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Emma Gonzales, from ever speaking up.
.. Americans are raised to believe that individuals, even flawed ones, can indeed change the world, and sometimes should. Canadians, for all that we’ve managed to construct a society that Americans sometimes envy, lack this ethic.
.. The resulting mind-set, disdainful of idealism and suspicious of ego, is one we are now, evidently, exporting.
.. Jordan Peterson is considered a heroic figure of historical importance, the man who finally said “Enough!” to political correctness run amok, to mobs of rabid Social Justice Warriors, to an ideologically driven “leftist-Marxist” movement hellbent on destroying Western civilization itself.
.. Mr. Peterson can be more accurately described as a previously obscure Canadian academic who believed, erroneously, that he would soon be forced by law to use gender-neutral pronouns and who refused to bow to that hypothetical demand. The proposed human rights policy that made Mr. Peterson famous is now Canadian law, and no instance of “compelled speech” has occurred as a result of it or resulted in criminal charges, as Mr. Peterson feared. On the issue of legal requirements for pronoun use, things remain the way Mr. Peterson wanted them — the same.
.. Mr. Peterson was taking a stand not against power in that instance but on behalf of it. His acolytes, some of whom might consider themselves to be walking in the tradition of rugged American individualism, should note that they are in fact taking marching orders — “Rules for Life,” no less — from a line-toeing Canadian, preaching a philosophy not of American defiance but of Canadian deference.