White House Protest is a Sacred Right. Mr. President, Tear Down That Fence.
Trump should not be retreating into a military fortress during this national convulsion. He should be opening up and hearing what the protestors are saying. There's so much he could do to make this turbulent time less stressful and frankly, less turbulent, but he's willfully not doing it. Instead, Trump has chosen to make the People's House into an ever-growing armed and fenced camp. He has, like so many traditions linked to the presidency, broken one that yields the largest possible freedom to protestors at the White House. In doing this, Trump is not just breaking a tradition, he's trampling the people's sacred right of protest, at the sacred People's House where we should have a chief executive addressed simply as Mr. President. What's next? Will Trump want to be addressed as His Majesty, or Your Excellency?
Whether President Trump retreated to the Presidential Bunker or not is not really a story worthy of serious reporting. Unless, of course, you are expanding the enormous oeuvre of fan-service narrative, like CNN’s Chris Cillizza does for a living.
What is a big story is that the White House itself has become a bunker, behind an ever-expanding exclusion zone of fencing and military-guarded boundaries.
This should not be so. No, sir, Mr. President. Don’t do it.
These are not terrorists like in the movie Olympus Has Fallen. Nobody is going to storm the White House in any coordinated manner or with the slightest hope of success. The president is very safe in the Oval Office, behind ballistic glass, guarded 24/7 by a phalanx of the most well-trained bodyguards in the world, augmented by the highest tech surveillance, quick reaction, and overwhelming application of force shock troops you can imagine.
And there’s also the U.S. Park Police, and the D.C. Police, who are more than capable of crowd control, having done it day-in-day-out for more than a century. All that, and Trump thinks he needs the National Guard and active-duty Army troops to clear his path, so he can take a stroll to stand in front of a church he doesn’t attend (without even the courtesy of asking the pastor), trailed by a clueless SecDef Mark Esper and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and to hold aloft “a Bible” (not even his?) that he doesn’t read, for the cameras.
It was a disgusting display of hubris and blindness to the political landscape. It was nothing but fan service to Trumpists, a Roman Triumph of power and tribute to Caesar. But that was one event. The continuation of making the White House a fortified no-protest zone tramples a sacred right of the People to protest at the White House.
We can go back to the 1800s when Americans could literally walk into the People’s House and ask to see the President. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson would welcome visitors in the East Room at lunchtime. Strolling on the White House grounds was essentially open to the public. After the British burned the White House (ok, so it was the Canadians, but there was no Canada) in 1812, James Madison installed the iron gates–essentially the ones we see today.
President Franklin Pierce was hit by a thrown egg, and then demanded a full-time bodyguard. During the Civil War, all of Washington was an armed camp, mostly so that Lincoln could run the war more or less in person. But the White House was protected by a large bodyguard, which was largely disbanded after the war–and didn’t travel with the president, or stop his assassination.
It wasn’t until the 20th century, after the assassination of William McKinley, that the Secret Service got the role of full-time presidential protection, and the White House. Over time, as terrorist attacks in 1983 and 2001 shook the nation, the White House extended its security perimeter and beefed up its protective force.
But Trump has taken that to an extreme, and done it without justification.
The 20th century and beyond have enjoyed an almost constant presence of protestors at Lafayette Park and around the White House. Even during the 1910s, women’s suffrage protestors stood outside carrying placards.
African-American women marched against lynching in the late 40s with no fear of being gassed or facing National Guard troops with flash bang grenades.
The turbulent 60s saw mass protests, again without troops clearing the streets.
George W. Bush’s presidency saw a continuous stream of anti-war protests, both at the White House and at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. Cindy Sheehan was arrested for protesting without a permit in 2005, but there was no teargas or sweeping protestors en masse from the White House perimeter.
For 35 years, Concepcion Picciotto maintained a daily vigil to advocate nuclear disarmament–12,500 days–at the White House through five presidents (Reagan, Bush 41, Clinton, Bush 43, and most of Obama’s) until her death in 2016.
The George Floyd protests, coupled with the COVID-19 lockdowns, are a terrible strain on our political will. But as David French argued, using the military to “trigger the libs” is a dangerous and awful practice. The military is very aware of this, and is sensitive to its own members racial and ethnic diversity.
Trump should not be retreating into a military fortress during this national convulsion. He should be opening up and hearing what the protestors are saying. There’s so much he could do to make this turbulent time less stressful and frankly, less turbulent, but he’s willfully not doing it.
Instead, Trump has chosen to make the People’s House into an ever-growing armed and fenced camp. He has broken, like so many traditions linked to the presidency, broken one that yields the largest possible freedom to protestors at the White House.
In doing this, Trump is not just breaking a tradition, he’s trampling the people’s sacred right of protest, at the sacred People’s House where we should have a chief executive addressed simply as Mr. President. What’s next? Will Trump want to be addressed as His Majesty, or Your Excellency?
Paraphrasing Ronald Reagan here: Mr. Trump, tear down this fence. It’s unbecoming, unnecessary, and frankly, it scares me of what else you might do in times of stress.
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