After the tear gas was deployed and the protesting Americans muscled away from Lafayette Square just in time for Monday’s evening news, President Trump walked from the White House Rose Garden to St. John’s Church, took a Bible from his daughter’s luxury handbag and … just held it.
As the Rev. Al Sharpton would say later in the week: “I’ve been preaching since I was a little boy. I’ve never seen anyone hold the Bible like that.”
I’m not sure I’ve even seen anyone hold a book like that. Mr. Trump glowered and hefted the Holy Writ as if he meant to swat a fly with it. With the attention of a pandemic-, unemployment- and unrest-plagued country, he delivered the visual message, “This is what a Bible looks like.”
The surreal dissonance of the gesture was summed up when a reporter asked the president if the book was his Bible. “It’s a Bible,” he responded.
Just so, this was not the cathartic moment that the country, torn open after the police killing of George Floyd, may have been looking for. But it was a moment. And it was one that summed up how the veteran TV performer has and hasn’t been willing to perform his job.
There has been, especially in the television era, a eulogistic, ministerial aspect of the presidency, the call to give voice to the country’s grief in dark moments. Think Barack Obama singing “Amazing Grace” in Charleston or Ronald Reagan reciting poetry after the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger.
Mr. Trump has scratched that part out of the job description. His visual vocabulary, since his 1980s tabloid-feud days, has always been limited to pantomimes of dominance. Yet the week began, for him, with a kryptonite image of weakness: the White House dormant and dark, amid reports that he had been hustled into a bunker.
That Monday morning, he lashed out during a conference call with a group of governors, demanding they flood the streets, and thus the media, with shows of strength. He wanted the state executives to “dominate” the protesters, whom he called “terrorists.”
If they would not give him the show of force he wanted, then the president — who in 1990 praised the Chinese government’s “strength” at Tiananmen Square — would answer this problem like he had so many: by creating a TV show. It was dominance theater, a Tianan-mini Square in which the sight of federal forces strong-arming peaceful demonstrators was as much a part of the photo op as the Bible-brandishing.
And posing outside the church was on brand for a president who is neither much of a churchgoer nor very conversant with what’s between the Bible’s covers, but who once reminisced about watching Billy Graham “for hours and hours” on TV with his father.
In place of words of comfort, we got apocalyptic televangelism. The White House Twitter account quickly slathered the footage in syrupy orchestration and packaged it into a propaganda video.
But for once, this was a political event bigger than Mr. Trump and his theatrics. Distilled images of pain were everywhere: the video of George Floyd’s killing, the TV-news wallpaper of buildings burning and batons raining down, the eyewitness footage on Twitter and TikTok.
Video has been a weapon itself this week. For protesters, smartphones have been a means of self-defense, for capturing scenes of brutality like when police in Buffalo pushed down an elderly man and walked over him as he bled from his ear. (Police initially claimed that the man “tripped and fell.”)
For the authorities, it could be a cudgel, as when the White House tweeted a video, later deleted, that dishonestly implied that a set of security barriers outside a Los Angeles synagogue was a cache of stones to be hurled by “Antifa and professional anarchists.”
For images of empathy and connection, you had to look everywhere else. The national accounting of America’s racial record reached even to late-night, where Jimmy Fallon apologized for playing Chris Rock in blackface in a 2000 “Saturday Night Live” sketch.
“I realized,” he said, “that the silence is the biggest crime that white guys like me and the rest of us are doing.”
Mr. Fallon, whose show has always been militantly un-heavy, spent the week turning his quarantine-based “Tonight” into “a different kind of show,” interviewing guests like the N.A.A.C.P. president Derrick Johnson and the rapper-activist Talib Kweli.
Of course, on TV, Very Special Weeks have a way of coming and going. Another rapper-activist, Killer Mike — whose anguished speech to Atlanta was maybe the signal video of a week of unrest — got at this when Stephen Colbert asked him what white Americans could do right now. Part of it, Killer Mike said, was to “understand that right now is always.”
As the week went on, Mr. Trump’s dominance theater gave way to images of the White House vanishing behind a vast perimeter of fencing. By Friday, Mr. Trump was in front of cameras in the Rose Garden again, but only to trumpet an unemployment report that he hoped Mr. Floyd was “looking down” on in approval.
His challenger, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., emerging from his quarantine campaign — his home-garden backdrop replaced by a traditional line of flags — gave an address calling the presidency “a duty to care.” Barack Obama, at a virtual town hall addressing issues of police violence, spoke directly to young black viewers: “I want you to know that you matter. I want you to know that your lives matter.”
Of course there are politics in all of this, implicit and explicit. Mr. Biden’s address, beyond any specific criticism or proposal, was asking viewers to imagine an alternative presidency that engaged with the language of caring.
But it wasn’t only politicians who were looking at America and seeing an empathy desert. That message came, of all places, from the Instagram feed of the wrestler-turned-Hollywood-star Dwayne Johnson, also known as the Rock.
In his video, Mr. Johnson is somber, yet as pained and vulnerable as a man-mountain in a muscles-bulging T-shirt can be. “Where is our leader?” he asks, in an extended, sometimes halting monologue that never mentions Mr. Trump by name but addresses only a conspicuous “You.”
“You would be surprised,” he says, “how people in pain would respond when you say to them, ‘I care about you.’”
The caring would instead have to be outsourced. It came from Meghan Markle, the African-American actress and Duchess of Sussex, in a video to the graduating class of her old high school. The duchess, the object of racist sniping in Britain, spoke to the agony of her home country, reciting a list of black victims of official violence: “George Floyd’s life mattered and Breonna Taylor’s life mattered and Philando Castile’s life mattered and Tamir Rice’s life mattered.”
The caring came, most cathartically, from a Thursday memorial service for Mr. Floyd in Minneapolis, a kind of national pastoral moment that sharply contrasted with Monday’s violently stage-managed Crusade at Lafayette Park.
Family members recalled private moments; Mr. Floyd’s nephew, Brandon Williams, remembered how his uncle, a LeBron James fan, would celebrate little triumphs by saying, “I feel like I just won a championship.” Mr. Sharpton built his own eulogy on a fiery metaphor, instantiating centuries of African-American oppression in Mr. Floyd’s final dying minutes.
“George Floyd’s story has been the story of black folks,” he said. For 400 years, “you had your knee on our neck.”
But the broadest, most powerful statement out of the service was no statement at all: Eight minutes and 46 seconds of silence, to match the time that Mr. Floyd had the breath of life crushed out of him.
For almost nine minutes amid a week of fury, TV went quiet. Most of the major news networks (CNN cut to commentators) and the broadcast networks, in special-report mode, held the silence. The broadcasters cut between the mourning of George Floyd’s family and live, quiet footage of protesters in Minneapolis, in the capital, streaming over the Brooklyn Bridge.
It was only a pause, not an end. But it was something. Three days after the chilling theatrics in front of St. John’s, Americans had finally, collectively, if briefly, gone to church.
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