As George Floyd protests raged across the US, why did Donald Trump insist on posing in front of churches?

(Originally published here on June 9 in South China Morning Post.)

Remember the New Testament story of how Jesus Christ got his henchmen to beat the living daylights out of merchants occupying the Temple of Jerusalem for defiling the house of worship with trade?

Well, that wasn’t quite how it went. Jesus didn’t have any henchmen, just the apostles, who weren’t particularly interested in getting into any serious scrapes with the Roman authorities. The offending merchants at the temple just got a good dressing down from Jesus, the story goes.

Nonetheless, it seems that US President Donald Trump and Attorney General William Barr saw protesters outside the White House on June 1 as the same sort of unholy desecration that enraged Christ 2,000 years ago.

With tear gas, rubber bullets and stun grenades, National Guard and Secret Service agents cleared the way for Trump – who throughout his life has shown about as much religious piety as Playboy founder Hugh Hefner – to stand in front of St John’s Church and hold up the holy book.

For anyone outside Trump’s base, the optics were grotesque. Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington called the move “antithetical to the Bible that he held in his hands”. And as Trump and the First Lady prepared for a visit to the Saint John Paul II National Shrine the very next day, Archbishop Wilton Gregory, the Catholic archbishop of Washington, denounced that photo opportunity as “baffling and reprehensible”.

When an institution with a history of sheltering child abusers gets upset about the morality of Trump’s behaviour, there must be something wrong.

The move also sparked a wave of criticism from a wide array of former Defence Department officials last week, including General Richard Myers, who served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under president George W. Bush, and Trump’s own former defence secretary, James Mattis.

Trump seemed to think he was holding out an olive branch to protesters by saying in a briefing on June 5 to celebrate unexpectedly positive employment numbers that it was “a great day” for George Floyd. This only served to enrage – or at the very least, confuse – those looking for a commitment to measures that would stop police officers from killing black Americans.

If that message seemed inappropriate, it was, especially because he preceded his assertion by castigating US governors and mayors for not calling in National Guard detachments and vowing repeatedly to “dominate the streets”.

Trump’s speech also included a few kind words for China on the trade front and appreciation for Russia and Saudi Arabia for cutting oil production – not surprising, given his love of autocratic governments.

The US leader’s law-and-order stance in the face of widespread demonstrations against police brutality symbolises the extent to which he’s determined to portray demonstrators as terrorists, and underscores a fight over what America represents.

As he has since the start of his administration, Trump is trying to dislodge the country’s position as the leader of an alliance that has worked to check authoritarian regimes, instead realigning Washington with the likes of Vladimir Putin and Mohammed bin Salman.

US law enforcement, whether local police or the National Guard, must move against those who are setting fires and looting. But Trump, Barr and others on the right aim to paint demonstrators and looters with the same brush, raising the stakes in a US culture war that was near boiling point even before George Floyd died under the knee of a police officer.

Antifa, short for antifascism, was the ethos behind Washington and its allies during World War II and the default position of the State Department throughout the decades since, during which time the US forged a new world order backing up that stance.

Trump and Barr have nowhere within the US Constitution or any laws of the land to justify armed attacks by the military against peaceful protesters, an undeniably fascist tactic, so they turned to the Bible.

Trump then posed mutely in front of the church not because he couldn’t think of anything to say, but because any words he might have uttered would likely have gone down in history as one of the most egregious violations of the American separation of church and state.

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