I pledge allegiance to liberty and justice for all.
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.
In a departure from Iran’s usual tactics of hiding behind proxies, the country’s supreme leader wants any retaliation for the killing of a top military commander to be carried out openly by Iranian forces.
In the tense hours following the American killing of a top Iranian military commander, the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, made a rare appearance at a meeting of the government’s National Security Council to lay down the parameters for any retaliation. It must be a direct and proportional attack on American interests, he said, openly carried out by Iranian forces themselves, three Iranians familiar with the meeting said Monday.
It was a startling departure for the Iranian leadership. Since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979, Tehran had almost always cloaked its attacks behind the actions of proxies it had cultivated around the region. But in the fury generated by the killing of the military commander, Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, a close ally and personal friend of the supreme leader, the ayatollah was willing to cast aside those traditional cautions.
The nation’s anger over the commander’s death was on vivid display Monday, as hundreds of thousands of Iranians poured into the streets of Tehran for a funeral procession and Mr. Khamenei wept openly over the coffin.
After weeks of furious protests across the country against corruption and misrule, both those who had criticized and supported the government marched together, united in outrage. Subway trains and stations were packed with mourners hours before dawn, and families brought children carrying photographs of General Suleimani.
A reformist politician, Sadegh Kharazi, said he had not seen crowds this size since the 1989 funeral of the Islamic Republic’s founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
“We are ready to take a fierce revenge against America,” Gen. Hamid Sarkheili of the Revolutionary Guard, declared to the throng. “American troops in the Persian Gulf and in Iraq and Syria are within our reach.”
“No negotiations or deal, only war with America,” students chanted in an online video from a university campus.
A renowned eulogist and member of the Revolutionary Guard, Sadegh Ahangaran, exhorted the funeral crowds to raise their voices so “damned America can hear you” and to “wave the flags in preparation for war.”
The increasingly public vows of direct action on Monday constituted Iran’s latest act of defiance to President Trump. Over the weekend the president had repeatedly threatened to retaliate for any attacks against American interests by ordering airstrikes against as many as 52 potential targets, one for each of the American hostages held after the seizure of the United States embassy in Tehran in 1979.
In response, Iran’s moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, on Monday responded with his own numerology. “Those who refer to the number 52 should also remember the number 290,” he said on Twitter, a reference to the 290 people killed in 1988 in the accidental downing of an Iranian airliner by an American warship. “Never threaten the Iranian nation,” Mr. Rouhani added.
Where, when and even if Iran may choose to retaliate remains a matter of speculation. As Iranian leaders weighed just what form it might take, analysts said the targets included American troops in neighboring Syria and Iraq, American bases in the Persian Gulf or American embassies or diplomats almost anywhere.
When previous attempts at direct strikes or assassinations have proved unsuccessful, some noted, Iranian-backed militants have turned to the simpler tactic of killing civilians with terrorist bombs.
This was the sequence in 2012 with the Iranian-backed Lebanese group Hezbollah. After failing in attempts to attack Israeli targets or kill Israeli officials in revenge for the killing of one of the group’s leaders, the militants eventually settled on the easier job of bombing a bus load of Israeli tourists in Bulgaria, said Afshon Ostovar, a scholar of Iran at the Naval Postgraduate School.
“We are in uncharted territory, and the truth of the matter is nobody knows how Iran is going to respond. I don’t think even Iran knows,” Mr. Ostovar said. “But I think there is a blood lust right now in the Revolutionary Guards.”
In Iraq, where the Parliament had earlier called for the immediate expulsion of the 5,000 American troops stationed there, Prime Minister Mahdi on Monday listed steps to curtail the troops’ movements.
While plans were being made for departure of the Americans, he said, they will now be limited to “training and advising” Iraqi forces, required to remain within the bases and barred from Iraqi air space.
Mr. Mahdi met with Matthew Tueller, the American ambassador to Iraq, on Monday, and “stressed the need for joint action to implement the withdrawal,” according to a statement and photo released by Mr. Mahdi’s office. He also emphasized Iraq’s efforts to prevent the current tensions between Iran and the United States from sliding into “open war.”
The United States military stirred a media flurry by accidentally releasing a draft letter that seemed to describe imminent plans to withdraw from Iraq. Marine Corps Brig. Gen. William H. Seely III, the commander of the United States forces in Iraq, wrote to the Iraqi government that the American troops would be relocated “to prepare for onward movement.”
“We respect your sovereign decision to order our departure,” he wrote.
But Defense Department officials played down the significance of the letter. “Here’s the bottom line, this was a mistake,” General Mark A. Milley, President Trump’s top military commander, told reporters at the Pentagon during a hastily called press briefing. “It’s a draft unsigned letter because we are moving forces around.”
“There’s been no decision whatsoever to leave Iraq,” Mark T. Esper, the defense secretary, told reporters. “There’s been no decision made to leave Iraq. Period.”
Although the Trump administration has said that the United States killed General Suleimani because he was planning imminent attacks against American interests, there were indications Monday that he may have been leading an effort to calm tensions with Saudi Arabia.
Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi of Iraq said that he was supposed to meet with General Suleimani on the morning he was killed, and that he expected him to bring messages from the Iranians that might help to “reach agreements and breakthroughs important for the situation in Iraq and the region.”
In Washington, two top Senate Democrats urged President Trump early Monday to declassify the administration’s formal notification to Congress giving notice of the airstrike that killed General Suleimani.
Such notification of Congress is required by law, and to classify the entirety of such a notification is highly unusual.
Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, and Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said in a joint statement that it was “critical that national security matters of such import be shared with the American people in a timely manner.”
And Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, urged Mr. Trump’s critics not to jump to conclusions. “Unfortunately, in this toxic political environment, some of our colleagues rushed to blame our own government before even knowing the facts,” he said.
For its part, Iran simultaneously continued a months-long push against the Trump administration over its demands that Tehran submit to a more restrictive renegotiation of a 2015 accord with the Western powers over its nuclear research. The Trump administration has sought to pressure Iran by devastating its economy with sweeping economic sanctions, which Iranian officials have denounced as economic warfare.
The sanctions set off the cycle of attacks and counterattacks that culminated last week in the killing of General Suleimani. Iran has also responded with carefully calibrated steps away from the deal’s limits on its nuclear program. On Sunday, Iranian officials said that they had now abandoned all restrictions on the enrichment of uranium, though they said they would continue to admit inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Amid the emotion of the funeral, some called for vengeance that would remake the region. “Even if we attack all of U.S. bases and even if we kill Trump himself it’s not enough revenge,” Brig. Gen Amir Ali HajiZadeh said at the funeral. “We must totally eliminate all U.S. troops from the region.”
For now, Iranian officials seem to be in no rush to strike back against the United States, possibly enjoying their ability to spread anxiety throughout the West. They seem content to
- bask in the nationalist surge in their popularity,
- growing international sympathy and the push to
- expel the American troops from Iraq.
“I don’t think they want to shift the conversation yet,” said Sanam Vakil, a scholar of Iran at Chatham House, a research center in London.
But for the hard-liners who dominate the Iranian National Security Council, she said, some vigorous retaliation would be the only rational response. “A non-response would appear weak and invite further pressure, creating problems in domestic politics and internationally,” she said.
I am not so sure. Indeed, the more I see of Ms. Ocasio-Cortez (I refuse to do the AOC thing, which I thought was a designation used in French wine labeling), the more I think she is building a claim to be one of the most important political figures of our age.
Let’s stipulate that, for the most part, she has received, and continues to get, epically favorable treatment in the news. Consider the derision and abuse with which Sarah Palin was greeted when she burst on the scene in 2008, and now consider Ms. Ocasio-Cortez. Mrs. Darth Vader versus the Second Coming.
The most powerful example of the swoon that the Bronx congresswoman has induced among her friends in the media is the story of how conservatives supposedly demonstrated their fear and loathing by mocking the famous video of her dancing while a college student. This is absurd. As far as I can tell, no one has been able to point to a single conservative who actually objected to the video or somehow suggested it was unbecoming. Indeed, most conservatives seemed to think, along with everybody else, that it was just rather charming.
But that’s part of her remarkable talent. She has an uncommon, dare I say Trump-like, ability to exploit deliberate misrepresentation for her own benefit. Note how she quickly seized on the fake dancing “controversy” to shoot another video of herself dancing outside her new congressional office. Twenty million views. Exquisitely done. Or contrast her passionate response to President Trump’s Oval Office address on The Wall with the official Chuck and Nancy American Gothic presentation.
She’s as natural a politician as anyone on the Democratic side. But she is more than that. She’s a symbol—and an exponent—of the radically altered nature of American politics in 2019. The country is in very unfamiliar territory. Assumptions about ideological verities and what the public will or won’t accept from politicians have been battered in the last three years.
Faith in the American model of capitalism has been crumbling for a decade—and not just on the left. Both wings of the partisan divide are challenging the existing order. Donald Trump has brilliantly ridden dissatisfaction with it among conservatives. His more thoughtful advocates are articulating something much deeper than “drain the swamp” populism. They’ve grasped that the old nostrums of free-market, growth-maximizing economic efficiencies no longer appeal to many disadvantaged Americans. Watch Tucker Carlson’s monologue from his Fox News show this week about (among other things) the failures of the market.
The group and its supporters are advocating for five key changes. They want
- an end to forced arbitration in cases of harassment and discrimination;
- a commitment to end pay and opportunity inequity;
- a publicly disclosed sexual-harassment transparency report;
- a clear, uniform, and globally inclusive process for reporting sexual misconduct safely and anonymously; and
- promotion of the chief diversity officer to answer directly to the CEO and make recommendations directly to the board of directors, along with the appointment of an employee representative to the board.
.. The Google walkout, in particular, has done a great job of raising awareness of company wrongdoings, but at the end of the day, Google is a for-profit corporation. The way to negotiate with a for-profit corporation isn’t through symbolism, but by jeopardizing profits.
.. “If women and men and anyone who supports these efforts had an actual strike, then you’d see lasting change,” Prashar said. “They need to say we’re not going to work unless these things actually change.” He also doesn’t see lasting changes coming from Google itself, or any other for-profit tech company for that matter. “It would be brilliant for businesses to do this [protect workers from sexual harassment and punish abusers], but to create a countrywide change, it’s going to require state and federal government to come in and change the laws too.”
the mission has little to do with what most Americans would call religious freedom. This is just the latest attempt by religious extremists to use the coercive powers of government to secure a privileged position in society for their version of Christianity.
.. The idea behind Project Blitz is to overwhelm state legislatures with bills based on centrally manufactured legislation. “It’s kind of like whack-a-mole for the other side; it’ll drive ‘em crazy that they’ll have to divide their resources out in opposing this,” David Barton
.. more than 70 bills before state legislatures appear to be based on Project Blitz templates or have similar objectives.
.. allows adoption and foster care agencies to discriminate on the basis of their own religious beliefs. Others, such as a Minnesota bill that would allow public schools to post “In God We Trust” signs on their walls
.. The first category consists of symbolic gestures, like resolutions to emblazon the motto “In God We Trust” on as many moving objects as possible (like, say, police cars).
Critics of such symbolic gestures often argue that they act as gateways to more extensive forms of state involvement in religion. It turns out that the Christian right agrees with them.
“They’re going to be things that people yell at, but they will help move the ball down the court,” Mr. Barton said in the conference call.
WHICH side are you on? Are you with Donald Trump, or with the Washington insiders who want to undo his election? Do you favor the legitimate president of the United States, or an unelected “deep state” — bureaucrats, judges, former F.B.I. directors, the media — that’s determined not to let him govern? Are you going to let a counterrevolution by elites bring down a man who was elevated to the White House precisely because the country knows that its elite is no longer fit to govern?
This is how the debate over Donald Trump’s mounting difficulties is being framed by some of my fellow conservatives, from Sean Hannity to more serious pundits and intellectuals.
.. But Trump is not actually governing as a populist or revolutionary, and the rolling crises of his first four months are not really about resistance to an “America First” or “drain the swamp” agenda
the various outsider groups that cast their lot with him
- working-class ex-Democrats to
- antiwar conservatives to
- free-trade skeptics to
- build-the-wall immigration hawks to
- religious conservatives fearful for their liberties —
have seen him pick very few difficult fights on their behalf.
.. his legislative agenda has been standard establishment-Republican fare — spending cuts to pay for upper-bracket tax cuts, rinse, repeat.
.. he’s mostly handed foreign policy over to his military advisers
.. Religious conservatives got Neil Gorsuch because he was a pedigreed insider. But they aren’t getting anything but symbolism on religious liberty, because Trump doesn’t want to pick a fight with the elite consensus on gay and transgender rights.
the establishment keeps winning:
- Planned Parenthood was funded in the budget deal and
- the border wall was not, the promised
- NAFTA rollback looks more likely to be a toothless renegotiation, Trump’s occasional talk about
- breaking up the big banks is clearly just talk,
- we haven’t torn up the Iran deal or
- ditched the Paris climate accords, and more.
.. populism needs a seat at the table of power in the West, and the people who voted for our president do deserve a tribune.
.. Trump is not that figure. As a populist he’s a paper tiger
.. too incompetent and self-absorbed to fight for them.
he’s not being dogged by leaks and accusations because
- he’s trying to turn the Republican Party into a “worker’s party” (he isn’t), or because
- he’s throwing the money-changers out of the republic’s temples (don’t make me laugh), or because
- he’s taking steps to reduce America’s role as policeman of the world (none are evident).
.. he’s at war with the institutions that surround him because he behaves consistently erratically and inappropriately and dangerously, and perhaps criminally as well.
.. there is no elite “counterrevolution” here for them to resist, because there is no Trump revolution in the first place.