What’s not to love about a good old-fashioned three-ring circus? The flash and bang of the human cannon, the dancing bears, the ponies prancing in lockstep, the flying trapeze, the tiger tamed, the clown brought down in a pratfall. But circus magic depends upon the art of misdirection. The best acts amaze us not only because they are skilled gymnasts or animal whisperers but also because they have mastered the ability to focus attention—on what they are doing as well as away from it. Perfected distraction is the essence of magic: the sleight of hand, the visual feint, the shell game, the disappearing act, the great escape.
President Donald Trump is a master of political misdirection. For those who have never seen his performance as comic impresario for World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), back when he was engaged in a Battle of the Billionaires with Vince McMahon, now might be the time to do some catch-up viewing. A natural ringmaster, our president was fond of entering an arena flanked and followed by fawning courtiers. The evening he was nominated at the 2016 Republican National Convention as the party’s presidential candidate, he made just such a magnificent entrance from behind a smoky scrim, illuminated by flashing lights amid a great wash of loud music. This over-the-top performativity is why many people who voted for him still insist that Trump isn’t a racist or a misogynist, that he doesn’t really mean what he says. In their estimation, he’s only doing shtick; he’s merely a great rodeo clown who seduces with humor and hyperbole. Even as recently as April, he was forgiven by many in his base for the “satire” of prescribing bleach and blasts of ultraviolet light, like a demented sword swallower’s bid to cure Covid-19.
For nearly four years, Trump has dissolved the foundations of our government in the acid of such nonsense, with even the most bizarre, ignorant, heinous, nativist, incoherent, awful behavior greeted as miraculous transmutation. From caging children to classifying journalists as “enemies of the people,” he has eroded the Constitution with nary a check and has been repeatedly forgiven because supposedly he’s a businessman or he’s a performer or he’s “real.” It’s all OK as long as he’s not really a politician.
It’s all funny—hilarious, even—until it really, really isn’t.
When, on June 1, Trump strode across Lafayette Square from the White House to a symbolic house of God, the fictive circus suddenly got real. It was like one of those terrible Agatha Christie moments when the magician puts a woman—it’s always a woman—into a box and pretends to saw her in half. Except the trick goes wrong! We are frozen for a moment. That can’t be blood! We don’t believe our eyes.
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There was certainly lots of drama leading up to the moment. There was the president’s weeklong snowballing fury, which climaxed with that photo of him holding the Bible aloft like a cat he had just strangled. There was the call with governors, during which he used some form of the word “dominate” 14 times. There was the threat, delivered from the Rose Garden, of sending in the military to discipline domestic demonstrators. There was an order to designate antifa as a terrorist organization—in the absence of any evidence it either is an actual organization or is engaged in terrorist activity. Finally, there was the summoning of a retinue of courtiers to cross the Rubicon of Lafayette Square, including the US attorney general, the secretary of defense, and the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Together they formed a brave flèche, picking their way through the litter of tear gas canisters where peaceful protesters had been violently removed only moments before. A White House spokeswoman took the liberty of comparing the scene to Winston Churchill inspecting the rubble of London during World War II, but to me, Trump’s angry march across the plaza amid a hellscape of pepper grenades and loud cries looked more like the stormy entrances made by the darkly wrathful WWE character and crowd-pleasing favorite the Undertaker.
Like any good gimmick, this misbegotten tableau came with an evocative caption: Operation Themis. I found a certain deceptive irony in that sheep’s clothing of a name, so tailor-made for a wolf. Themis is said to have created the Delphic Oracle. Themis was the Greek goddess of divine order, customary norms, and the general awareness of right from wrong. Her will was revealed through omen and revelation, not man-made law. When Themis’s commands were neglected or ignored, Nemesis was said to take over—Nemesis being the goddess of divine retribution, the avenger of crime. Carrying a scourge, a whip, a sword, and a measuring rod, she was called implacable. To me, therefore, Operation Nemesis seemed a much more fitting label for the events of June 1.
But whether in the name of Themis or Nemesis, the staging suggested mythic glory, this evocation of Moses parting the Red Sea, this smackdown team of muscled if maskless superheroes, with Princess Ivanka bringing up the rear like an ice swan, bearing a Bible in her boxy snow-white handbag. And just as with the Undertaker’s entry into the ring, Donald Trump’s procession was marked by Sturm und Drang and curtains of smoke through which the victorious lord materialized and “dominated.”
The fact that the smoke was really tear gas or that there were flailing batons, sharp-hoofed horses, and gladiators in real battle gear with real guns pointed at real citizens or that this was the real president and the real secretary of defense commanding the real and immense power of the US military against a lawful and peaceful assembly or that this was a display of real authoritarianism in unconstitutional service to such a petty, tin-pot end… well, it all hardly seemed to matter. What lingered in the mind was that this was a brilliantly theatrical, visually plotted performance with so many mixed-up cinematic and comic book references, it was hard to keep track.
But the magic of misdirection does not only make us wonder how that hefty white rabbit materialized out of thin air. Performed skillfully enough, you just might end up believing that the magician himself is a renderer of miracles and that the word “abracadabra” can override the very laws of physics. Trump’s march, cutting its way through crowds like a bulldozer, was the kind of performance that enchants its viewers into new realities. It visually telegraphed a powerful alternative universe and enacted a heretofore unimaginable blueprint of how state force might “dominate” a public space. It was behavior whose performativity operates far beyond itself. Mere oaths of office faded in its wake. The Posse Comitatus Act evaporated like a ghost. You, the people, used to have a working Constitution, but—oops!—you blinked, and it disappeared.
I don’t wish to spend much time deconstructing what was going on in the president’s mind. Better to examine the downstream effects of his pantomime as it was echoed and reenacted in the pushing aside of other peaceful protesters in other places in the days that followed. For all the genuinely moving moments of police kneeling and thoughtful engagement in the complexity of dissent, there seemed to be a clear national uptick after June 1 in police throwing demonstrators to the ground, beating marchers, attacking journalists and photographers, spraying tear gas in onlookers’ faces, and threatening protesters with moving vehicles.
Consider one particularly visible and vexed case: On June 4, 75-year-old Martin Gugino, a Catholic peace activist, was shoved by members of the Buffalo Police Department’s Emergency Response Team. Gugino stumbled backward and fell, hard, onto the pavement, fracturing his skull. He lay there with blood flowing profusely in a pool around his head. Later, after help finally came, he was hospitalized (and remained so two weeks later, in serious condition). But remarkably, help was not immediately forthcoming. A spectator with a smartphone captured the episode; the video showed an entire squadron of police, including the officers who shoved him, walking past Gugino’s supine form. Not one of them came to his aid. Instead they moved on like a school of fish or a pack of wild horses gliding around a big stump in the ground. It is a shocking video. The push itself was both brutal and careless, the response even more so.
Yet there was a notable moment in the video when one officer hesitated, seemed to waver. But just then, another officer put his hand on his shoulder and signaled him to keep moving. That brief turn toward the injured man was the tiniest shimmer of movement, lost as quickly as it came, as the herd moved on. I remark on that small hesitation because it occurred at the instant in this narrative when Themis might reasonably have been invoked. This was the moment of crisis when the internalized voices of our leaders, mentors, teachers, and friends should insert themselves for a nudge toward goodness. It is precisely the instant when one might wish for better angels rather than avenging scolds to intervene. This is the situation in which lessons in the basic skills of deescalation might assert their value as those inner advisory voices, that second nature. That’s enough. Take your knee off his neck. Don’t step over an unconscious body in your role as a guardian of public safety.
Indeed, in the video, the officers seemed transfixed by the groupthink of staying together, an orderliness that overrode kindness or common sense. It looked as though they were pursuing a mission unrelated to the fate of members of the public and had forgotten what they were there to do. Too busy to look down or look back, they couldn’t stop to heal or to recognize actual vulnerable civilian circumstance as part of their charge.
This brusque triage of concern is the downstream application of a state of mind that treats public ground as a “battle space,” as Secretary of Defense Mark Esper urged the governors during the group phone call of June 1. That logic of war was made even more apparent in short order: After the two officers who shoved Gugino were suspended and charged with second-degree assault, the entire Emergency Response Team—some 57 officers—resigned “in disgust” to protest the “mistreatment” of their brethren. As John Evans, the president of the local Police Benevolent Association, told The Buffalo News, “Our position is these officers were simply following orders from Deputy Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia to clear the square…. It doesn’t specify clear the square of men 50 and under, or 14 to 40. They were simply doing their job. I don’t know how much contact was made. He did slip in my estimation. He fell backwards.”
It is easy to pick up on the casual cruelty of those individuals who are just “following orders.” What is subtler and more complex is the corollary, expressed by Roger Berkowitz in a New York Times reflection on Hannah Arendt’s portrayal of Adolf Eichmann. Berkowitz wrote that the harder cases are those when people act “not as a robotic bureaucrat, but as part of a movement.” They “commit themselves absolutely to the fictional truth of the movement…. It is this thoughtless commitment that permits idealists to imagine themselves as heroes and makes them willing to employ technological implements of violence in the name of saving the world.”
As though to complete the circle and reinforce this ethic of good-soldierly dominance, Trump lost no time endorsing the Buffalo officers’ mass resignation, tweeting a completely unsubstantiated theory that Gugino “could be an ANTIFA provocateur.” (This is not an accusation to be taken lightly; in declaring those associated with antifa as terrorists, Trump potentially subjects them not only to oversight by police but also to much-harder-to-trace surveillance and interference by the FBI, CIA, and other spy agencies.) The president’s tweet concluded, “I watched, he fell harder than was pushed. Was aiming scanner. Could be a set up?” Although the FBI and the Department of Justice have, to date, announced no arrests of protesters linked to antifa ideology or groups, Attorney General William Barr suggested on Fox News that the lack of cases “does not mean they haven’t been involved in the violence.” The eloquently compressed response from Gugino’s attorney noted that the injured man “has been a longtime peaceful protester, human rights advocate and overall fan of the US Constitution.” Even Republican Senator Susan Collins stated, “I think it would be best if the president did not comment on issues that are before the courts.”
It is true that the two members of the Emergency Response Team charged with Gugino’s assault will come before the courts—eventually. Meanwhile, we must wonder what will happen to our collective consciousness by then. Second-degree murder charges have been filed against Derek Chauvin for the killing of George Floyd—but what filters might settle over our perceptions to make that presently inexcusable death seem reasonable through the same lens that exonerated the officer who strangled Eric Garner?
We must treat this sleight of hand with the seriousness it deserves. It may be that this moment sufficiently reveals to all Americans the disparities that African Americans and other people of color have been experiencing for generations. But we have been here before, if not to the same degree, yet over and over, what seems to be seen becomes unseen, our attention redirected. Even when the Trumpian circus earns scorn and furious backlash, his basest theatrical stylings nevertheless become viral moral templates to be reenacted elsewhere, familiarized as normative baselines are reset. Trump explicitly endorses an ethic that urges officers not to be “too nice” when making an arrest. He encourages an environment in which just stopping to acknowledge that you’ve mowed someone down is seen as weakness and restraint in governance is acting like a fool. The president praises extraordinary shows of force, seemingly driven by no higher morality than the pure vanity of wanting to appear invincible, the question of proportion a superfluity.
If we are ever to return merely to the flawed life we once had, let alone drag ourselves into the better world we hope to inhabit in the future, we must profoundly reappraise political appeals to magical thinking. There are no miracles. There are no gods among us. Once we had a Constitution. We all saw it. Now you don’t? Then it’s time we stop wringing our hands and intercept that Oz-like strange joker as he sidles for the door. We cannot let him abscond with something so precious hidden up his sleeve.