An authoritarian world leader hunkering down in a bunker while military chaos swirls on the streets overhead. A peaceful crowd of demonstrators attacked by the military in a famous public space while an aghast world watches in real time. Brutal violence by police against citizens exercising their constitutional rights. Shocking photos that indelibly seared into public consciousness the inequity and brutality of law enforcement.
These are not images we are supposed to associate with the United States in 2020. Hitler in his bunker during the final days of World War II; the repression of Chinese demonstrators in Tiananmen Square 31 years ago this week; police dogs attacking civil rights marchers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965; a disbelieving student kneeling at the lifeless body of a fellow demonstrator at Kent State in 1970. Those are the historic images that should come to mind when such circumstances are mentioned. Not the White House bunker, tear gas, shock grenades, rubber bullets and low-flying helicopters at Lafayette Park and a policeman crushing the life out of a helpless man on the streets of Minneapolis.
The horror of the past week, in addition to the fear and frustration of an incompetent government’s response to the coronavirus, has pushed the country to the edge of genuine chaos. No, I don’t mean the country is falling apart or that violent revolution is around the corner. But something profound is taking place and reaching deep into the public psyche, far beyond the anger, outrage and mayhem in city after city.
We see that profundity in the sitting Secretary of Defense breaking with his own president over the ill-wisdom of invoking military laws and utilizing the armed forces against Americans in their own neighborhoods. In the stunning reprimand of retired military leaders reminding commanders that they took an oath to serve the Constitution and the people, and by implication, not irresponsible usurpers of the public trust. In the decision of police and military personnel wisely taking a knee and walking with demonstrators in a repudiation of violence by irresponsible provocateurs and reckless political leaders.
The common realization, shared by a widening majority of Americans across the partisan spectrum, seems to be that however much one may despise or share Donald Trump’s policy goals, his behavior as president is so dangerous that we cannot allow him to continue in office. And while he remains president until January 20, 2021, rational leaders in the political and even military structure will have to assess which of his erratic and destructive orders can be obeyed and which must be resisted because they take the nation into a dark and perilous tunnel.
Hopefully, but not necessarily, that consensus continues to grow between now and Election Day, still five long months away. Surely this is no time for violence or resignation by Americans, but it is also no time for complacency. One would have to be foolish not to believe Trump will make every effort to obstruct and distort the election; nothing in his history, character or behavior could leader any dispassionate person to any other conclusion. So we must work with state and local officials, and with responsible members of the Congress, to ensure that Trump does not rip away our last vestiges of democratic governance in a narcissistic frenzy to maintain power.
Yes, this sounds ominous and maybe a bit fatalistic. If ever there was a time for such feelings, we have arrived at it. You can’t put it much better than did Mario Savio at Sather Gate all those years ago. “There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop!”
It is on each of us to “make it stop.” On the streets, in discussions with friends, at the workplace, and especially at the polls. One certainty is undebatable: it will not stop by itself.