Tinpot Tyrant


June 2, 2020

Last week, we cited an analysis showing that if black Americans died from COVID-19 at the same rate as whites, 13,000 more black Americans would be alive today. Another survey showed that 56 percent of black Americans had lost income from employment since mid-March, and that close to one-quarter of blacks reported sometimes or often not having enough to eat in the previous 7 days, more than three times the proportion of whites. Then, amid the tensions over sickness and want, another crisis. George Floyd was killed by homicidal police in plain view of the world. The outrage of this crime, after so many other injustices, sent thousands of people into the streets. In this outpouring, there is anger, and the courageous demand that this nation finally, finally must live up to its promise of equal protection of the law. We have seen extraordinary generosity of spirit: demonstrators protecting each other, protecting property, police taking a knee with them, marching with them.   

And then there is the tinpot tyrant. After a few words acknowledging the wrong that had been done to Mr. Floyd, President Trump seized upon the protests as another opportunity to exploit division and to advance self-interest. The man who last month showed his smallness by sitting in front of the towering statue of Abraham Lincoln did not express malice toward none, charity for all –  just nothing but malice. He admires tyrants, not leaders. He tries to exert force, mistaking it for strength. 

All through the national emergency of the pandemic, his talent for putting on a self-aggrandizing show came up very short against the nation’s real need for healing. Neither he nor his lackeys had any idea how to plan and sustain protection from the devastation of COVID-19. That was left to Speaker Pelosi, Leader Schumer, others in Congress, career officials, governors, and local leaders. We are fortunate Trump saw the early rounds of coronavirus legislation as in his interest. But he could provide no leadership for administering the funding, and moved on to wanting, beyond anything, to re-open the economy, and get those numbers up before the election. 

President Trump at St. John’s Church across from the White House after the area was cleared of protestors (Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

We still need healing. We still need justice. But the tinpot tyrant will not seek “firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right…to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds…” No, instead he uses peaceful demonstrators as extras, a backdrop to his starring role as imperious ruler.  But they were not “extras” – they were real people, demanding the democracy we are promised, but subjected to tear gas, flash grenades, and military force to make way for the tyrant’s photo op in front of St. John’s Church, a few steps away from the White House. The church had suffered some damage from a fire set the night before. No contact was made with the Episcopal diocese ahead of time. He stood there holding a Bible, near a sign saying “All are welcome” until he edged away from it, soon joined by officials and staff. A very few minutes and then back to the White House. Episcopal Bishop the Right Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde expressed outrage. “The president used a Bible, the most sacred text of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and one of the churches of my diocese, without even asking us, as a backdrop for a message antithetical to the teachings of Jesus and everything that our church stands for.  

And that message? He seeks “domination” by military force on our communities if governors do not exert it on their own. When the National Guard achieved that, in his view, in Minneapolis, Trump told the governors “It was a beautiful thing to watch.” 

There has been vandalism; there has been some looting. It is not clear who is doing this, but it is clear the vast majority of protesters are peacefully and courageously standing for justice. We need leaders to follow their lead. We need legislation to stop the use of military weaponry and tactics against our communities. A letter drafted by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the ACLU and others and signed by 400 organizations (including the Coalition on Human Needs) was sent to Congressional leaders, calling on them to eliminate federal programs that provide military equipment to law enforcement. The letter also calls for federal standards that limit the use of force by police, prohibiting racial profiling, and various means of holding police accountable. These are practical steps Congress can take to turn us back towards civilian democracy and away from racial oppression.   

The federal government has other work to do as well. The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases has climbed to more than 1.8 million in the U.S. as of this writing. More than 40 million of us are unemployed and hurting. The Senate must take up the HEROES bill passed by the House to prevent the shock to the economy from turning into a long-term depression. The infection of racism that has allowed such disproportionate harm to people of color demands a remedy; so does the chronic toxicity of police violence. 

During his call with governors, someone said that the military action in Minneapolis looked like an occupying force. Trump replied“people wouldn’t have minded an occupying force.”  Such is his hope – that creating an alternative reality show playing to fear, division and racism will distract people from his failures to protect us from the pandemic and its economic devastation. 

Police protests