When President Trump lumbered out of the White House Monday to stand in front of a barricaded church and awkwardly pose with a Bible, two quotes came to mind.
The first was from “Animal House”: “I think this situation absolutely requires a really futile and stupid gesture.”
The second was a lyric from the Israeli singer Shalom Hanoch: “Mashiach lo ba, Mashiach gam lo metalfen” — The Messiah isn’t coming, he isn’t phoning either.
After a week of the kind of unrest not seen here since the 1960s, after three months and counting of a devastating public health and economic catastrophe, the country is yearning for calm, for reassurance. The apparent murder by police of George Floyd in Minneapolis, exposing yet again the epidemic of police violence directed at people of color, was the match. But a pandemic that fell most heavily on black and brown people had created the conditions for a conflagration.
A typical president would have read the room, realizing that what was happening was bigger than him, bigger than politics. He would offer solace, as George W. Bush did in the days after Sept. 11, or deep empathy, as Barack Obama did after the school massacre in Sandy Hook, Conn., and the deadly shooting at a Charleston, S.C., church. A typical president would have understood his role as consoler-in-chief.
But Donald Trump is not a typical president. After a few brief remarks last week offering condolences to Floyd’s family and pledging to seek justice in his case, the president returned to form, retreating to and inside the White House, lashing out at political enemies via Twitter and, according to reports, ignoring advice that he speak to a raw and polarized nation in a way meant to find common cause.
On Monday night, in remarks from the Rose Garden, he repeated the pattern. He gestured toward the Floyd killing but then quickly went full George Patton, calling on governors to call out the National Guard on violent protesters (which many had already done) and threatening to use military force if they didn’t. “I am your president of law and order and an ally of all peaceful protesters,” he declaimed, as riot police used tear gas to clear peaceful protesters from the short path between the White House and St. John’s Episcopal Church.
And then that photo-op, a futile gesture that said nothing so much as: “Here I stand, in front of a building I seldom enter, holding a book I rarely read, playing a role I’ll never fully understand.”
Not that after three years of his presidency anyone expected anything different. Trump may be the most consistent president we’ve ever had, dependably regressing to his mean despite the hopes of opponents and allies that this time, just maybe, he might surprise us. Not this time, not ever: Trump must have calculated that his base would have interpreted empathy as weakness, so he returned to the kind of militaristic posture that plays so well at his rallies.
For an antidote, I clung this week to some strong statements by those for whom religion is a guidepost, not a prop. Statements from Jewish organizations were admirably nonpartisan and deeply heartfelt. The Orthodox Union said it was “saddened, sickened, and outraged” by the video of Floyd’s death, before calling on all Americans to “work in partnership toward eradicating all forms of bigotry and racism and making the United States the ‘more perfect union’ we all pray for it to be.”
The Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis spoke angrily about police violence and systemic racism, as well as the vandalism that has marred peaceful protests. Its statement called for specific reforms, while expressing solidarity with the “good, noble, anti-racist law enforcement officials whose good names have been tarnished by these horrific crimes.”
The Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly also urged political action that would “dismantle the systemic racism all too embedded still within American law enforcement and its justice system.” And it quoted Torah: “[W]e will not stand idly by while our neighbor’s blood is shed” [Lev. 19:16].
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I almost got whiplash Monday night, watching the president’s speech and photo-op live on cable while Zooming in to a fundraising gala for T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. Among the activists honored at the gala was Maharat Rori Picker Neiss, who as executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council in St. Louis organized rabbis in support of mail-in voting during the coronavirus epidemic. She quoted Talmud: “Once permission is granted to the destroyer, it does not distinguish between the righteous and the wicked” [Bava Kamma 60a]. She might have been talking about the coronavirus, or racism, or toxic partisanship that erases our common humanity.
Mashiach will come before President Trump appeals to the better angels of our nature, or to our common humanity. The Hanoch song reminds us that we’re on our own, at least for now. And if we are to find comfort in these difficult times, if we are to achieve a healing of body and a healing of spirit, we will have to muster our own resources, draw on our own traditions and take our own actions – in common cause.