The weekend was filled with questions about our usually assertive president. “Where is Trump?” many asked. “Why no national address?” others wondered.
For his part, the president had made clear in previous days, both in person and via social media, his multi-layered sentiments about the death of George Floyd, the protests that followed and the rioting that opportunistically attached itself to those protests. The bottom line: condolences for the Floyd family, an assurance that justice will be done, and a warning not to allow rioting to insult his memory and poison the atmosphere for a national conversation.
The rioters were uncooperative, leading to weekend fires and showers of broken glass strewn across many cities. Also scattering widely were taunts aimed at the president, mocking him for remaining inside the White House, denying critics the chance to attack any words he might choose to speak. As the weekend wound down, even supporters wondered what the president was waiting for.
Turns out he was waiting for Monday.
“Most of you are weak,” he told governors on a conference call, according to quotes from a source listening in. “You have to dominate. If you don't dominate, you're wasting your time. They're going to run over you. You're going to look like a bunch of jerks. You have to dominate.”
“You’ve got to arrest people,” he continued. “You have to track people; you have to put them in jail for 10 years and you’ll never see this stuff again.” Then a cryptic wrap-up: “We’re doing it in Washington, D.C. We’re going to do something that people haven’t seen before.”
Little did we know.
As the hour neared for planned remarks in the Rose Garden, park rangers cleared the area from the White House across Lafayette Park to the boarded-up St. John’s Church, set ablaze the night before by rioters. No one knew at the time that the path was being secured for a presidential walk likely to be long remembered.
After his speech containing a commitment to mobilizing federal troops to maintain order, Trump strode through the park to stand for about 30 seconds in front of the church, a Bible in his hand. “We have the greatest country in the world,” he told the gathered gaggle of reporters, “And we’re going to keep it safe.” Then he walked away, leaving his opponents barely a moment to catch their collective breath to plot how to denigrate and mock the moment.
Many focused on the Bible, as if he had used it as some sinister prop. Hyperventilating anchors and guests filled cable TV with daunting images of a looming dictatorship. But his message was as simple as it was resonant: This is God’s house. We will not see worship cave to terror. We will not allow violence to poison the American discourse.
At that moment, there were two communities Americans could join: the one agreeing with that sentiment, or the one opting for the coddling of riots and the embrace of measures insufficient to stop them.
On the third of November, memories should still be fresh of who was in which group.