On the first day, nothing. Nothing too on the second and third and fourth and fifth save for complaints, idle and intermittent. By the sixth, a retreat underground amid the crashing bricks and bottles, a quiet reassurance of safety (his). Then on the seventh night: soundbombs and gas deployed not in the hope of retaking the streets of Washington from the looters of stores and mere private residences but to keep our drowsy emperor awake on his short stroll to a photo opportunity with an awkwardly held Bible against the backdrop of a church dedicated to the Beloved Disciple.
Years from now, among the defining images of these strange times will be one of the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue taking a purposeless walk to St. John's Episcopal Church in the middle of a city-wide riot. The most important takeaway from this real-time television commercial is the conclusion it should force from observers: Donald Trump is not a dictator. He is not an authoritarian. He is not a fascist or a Caesarist or a Peronist or an -ist of any other known variety. He is emphatically not a Nixonian proponent of law and order. Any of these things would require the president to have convictions and prejudices distinct from his own political fortunes, real or perceived. To pretend otherwise encourages the delusions of Trump's most blinkered enemies in journalism and his most delusional supporters. Both of these groups would like to believe that the president is a man of action, a politician with a coherent ideology, a strategist with defined goals — above all, a swift unwavering maker of decisions. They differ only in their moral assessment of this fantastical personage, who bears no meaningful resemblance to the senescent ditherer in the White House.
What the past week has shown is that Trump is incapable of wielding power, for good or evil. He is happy to tweet “When the looting begins, the shooting begins,” to browbeat the nation's governors during telephone calls, to lash out at journalists, just as he is wont to muse about the salutary effects of running over protesters. To the disappointment of goodness knows how many people who would have been happy to see tanks rolling down the streets of Minneapolis and bottle-tossing demonstrators lying shot in the streets a week ago, the festival of bloodshed never begins. This is not the forbearance of a Louis XVI. It is the lunatic middle course of a man unwilling to commit himself either to the conciliatory measures allegedly being urged by his son-in-law Jared Kushner or to the reactionary violence that appeals to his aesthetic instincts.
This pattern is not new. For Trump the Affordable Care Act was the doom of the republic until the moment it became clear that the GOP did not have enough votes in the Senate to repeal it. Our random interventions in the Middle East, which Trump spent so much of his 2016 presidential campaign decrying, were disastrous until various advisers convinced him of the necessity of staying the course in Afghanistan, bombing Syria, and assassinating an Iranian general. Our trade relations with China were dangerously one-sided and in need of sweeping reform until it became clear that Wall Street did not agree. Immigration was holding down American wages, but it must be allowed to do so in order to ensure that the agriculture lobby has access to poorly remunerated guest workers. The special counsel investigation led by Robert Mueller was nothing short of treasonous, but not worth actually shutting down unilaterally after Jeff Sessions, the former attorney general who was once his loyal courtier, refused to do it on his behalf. More recently, coronavirus was dangerous enough to shut down travel to and from China, but not without making so many exceptions as to render the relevant order useless; the cure, we were told, must not be allowed to become worse than the disease, but the severity of the latter was something about which Trump was unwilling to make up his mind, while the scope of the former was left almost entirely to the nation's governors; a few weeks ago the imminent reopening of Georgia was synonymous with the cause of liberty itself until the moment it became the occasion for a bizarre public scolding. Such examples could be multiplied indefinitely. Inconstancy is the only constant in this administration.
What conclusion should we draw from Trump's omnidirectional hesitation? There is, I think, really only one, namely that by allowing all of American political life to be subsumed into a never-ending referendum on the president and his character, we have given him and virtually every other politician in this country a license to emulate him. A handful of young Republicans in the Senate flirt with (by the standards of their party) radical economic reforms, but are they not held back by the president? Democrats control the House of Representatives, and while their caucus remains officially opposed to single-payer health care, they have after all impeached Trump. Governors throughout the United States have forced senior citizens into nursing-home death traps, but they criticize Trump on late-night television programs.
America is burning, but there are millions of fiddlers. We are all playing the same tune.