WASHINGTON — It is ironic that President Donald Trump used Lafayette Square as the staging ground to intimidate peacefully protesting citizens with a force of soldiers and federal agents.
After all, the Marquis de Lafayette was a young nobleman drawn to fight in the American Revolution and lobby for his country to join the cause because he believed in tolerance, equality and “peaceful liberty.”
That’s not to say that Trump was aware of the symbolism or why the park might have been named for Lafayette.
In securing the unalienable rights of man, Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, “governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
There is no evidence that Trump has the consent of the governed. He won election with less than 46 percent of the vote, and his party lost control of the House in the 2018 mid-term elections. Polls show that a clear majority of the public disapproves of his handling of his job. Those numbers have ticked upward since the onset of uprisings in cities across the country last week.
His show of force outside the White House Monday, mild in context of world events and yet emblematic of a potential turning point in American governance, represented a fundamental change in the relationship between the president and the public. And it revealed how far his worldview is from the basic premise that guided the founding generation.
Unable to win over a majority of the people to his agenda or his conduct, Trump is exerting extreme power from a minority position.
The American Revolution was fought to abolish tyranny by a minority. The government that emerged balanced the democratic values of majoritarian rule with carefully built protections against the minority being oppressed. It was far from perfect — from slavery to modern injustice in the justice system — but the concept was well-articulated at the time and has held the nation together through war and calamity.
For a few generations now, federal forces have been used to ensure the rights of oppressed minorities, such as when Eisenhower sent troops to Arkansas to integrate Little Rock Central and when the Justice Department has taken over local police investigations into civil rights violations. But Trump is using them to stop protests against the killing of unarmed black citizens by police.
Now Trump is trying to demonstrate control over the majority at a moment when measurable consent is low. His disapproval rating is pegged at 53.8 percent by FiveThirtyEight.com, about even with the highest level this election year.
His critics blame him for a slow response to the coronavirus pandemic. The disease has killed more than 100,000 Americans, and his scramble to stop its spread required a shutdown of commerce that has cost 40 million U.S. jobs.
Protests over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last week offered Trump an opportunity to try to telegraph strength in a time of chaos partially of his own making.
He has sought to escalate confrontations between authorities and protesters, accusing governors of being “weak” for not using more violence against their own citizens, suggesting that looters should be shot on sight, and turning the nation’s capital into a militarized zone.
He went from sheltering in a White House bunker to having the Park Police attack a nonviolent protest outside Lafayette Square so that he could cross the park, adorned with troops in riot gear, and brandish a Bible for photographs.
The potential political benefit he seeks is clear, but limited.
“Trump’s own base was frustrated with the president because he had not addressed the nation or taken actions to respond to the growing concerns that the looting and violence was getting out of control,” Republican strategist Ron Bonjean said. “The recent show of force turned things around and is keeping the loyal intensity from his base high. Trump’s actions will get credit from his supporters because there has been a rapid erosion of looting and violence since Monday.”
Five months out, his path to re-election appears to be very narrow.
And it seems that his plan to execute it is to encourage a crackdown against those who oppose him. The assault on protesters at Lafayette Square, who were greeted with noxious gas and rubber bullets as they chanted for an end to state violence, was the act of a commander-in-chief who lacks the legitimacy of consent.
“Whether it’s his private conduct toward women or his public conduct toward the people, Trump does not care about consent,” said John J. Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and author of “Un-American: The Fake Patriotism of Donald J. Trump.””For Trump, public opinion is nothing but cover for his own desires,” Pitney said. “If the polls are with him, he’ll cite the polls. If the polls aren’t with him, he’ll say that they’re fake and then make up his own numbers.”
After helping win the American and French revolutions, Lafayette observed that “true republicanism is the sovereignty of the people.”
It’s hard to know exactly what the people want when their voices are stamped out by force. But after nearly 250 years, it’s safe to say that it would be a major reversal if the American people wanted to give up their right to consent to be governed.