Donald Trump, St. John's, and Symbolic Leadership

The media has had a field day attacking President Trump for his walk across Lafayette Square to pay his respects to St. John’s Episcopal Church that was set afire by rioters. Certainly, as so many commentators noted, the rioters setting a fire at St. John’s crossed a line into territory that no sensible person could defend. Throughout its history, St. John’s has been considered a national church because sitting presidents since the 19th century have walked across that park to attend church at St. Johns. Numerous ceremonial events have taken place in that sanctuary where a pew was reserved for Abraham Lincoln.

While the nation mourned the terrible injuries and even deaths from the rioting and despaired at the billions of dollars of property lost in the wanton destruction, the fire at St. John’s struck a nerve deep inside the nation’s psyche. The President’s gesture of respect -- acknowledging the importance of houses of worship and sacred places, especially now during these turbulent times -- was appropriate. The “orange man bad” crowd will, of course, never grant that he was motivated by a desire for healing and bringing America back to the moral norms grounded in religion that are essential for freedom. Trump, unlike his critics, moved to symbolically align himself with what John Adams pronounced from the very beginning that “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

The President’s taking a stand in front of the now boarded-up church was akin to President Bush standing in the ruins of the World Trade Center following 9/11.  It was like President Reagan (defying the “advice” of his spineless State Department) standing in front of the Berlin Wall to demand that Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev “tear down this wall.”

Immediately, the media went on the offensive with an outpouring of false claims that police and the  National Guard cleared the square by “tear gassing” peaceful protesters so the President could have a PR photo op. Literally thousands of newspaper articles, news reports on radio and television and comments on social media -- contrary to what the public had watched with their own eyes night after night on television -- painted a false picture of cruel, aggressive law enforcement harassing, shoving, and abusing “peaceful” demonstrators and using tear gas to get them out of the way to satisfy the President’s ego.  

That outcry about police brutality continues -- even from major news sources -- though the assertions are totally false and based entirely on lies and distortions.

  • The Park Service issued a statement clarifying their procedures at Lafayette Park. Knowledgeable observers categorically declared only smoke canisters and pepper balls were used and there is absolutely no evidence of tear gas being used. The pictures and video from the event clearly show the police were not wearing the requisite gas mask to use tear gas, but the lies continue and are pervasive.
  • The police report that the protesters were “combative,” trying to grab officers’ weapons, throwing glass bottles, frozen water bottles, and other projectiles and were definitely not “peaceful.” All this is consistent with what the television broadcasts documented.

These complaints joined those of other media and anti-Trump voices making fun of the President holding a Bible in front of the church. The New York Times’ Elizabeth Bruening described the event as “macabre.” These are the same voices that tried to convince us that it was legitimate humor for “comedian” Kathy Griffin to hold up what looked like Trump’s severed head. The Episcopal bishop, the Right Rev. Mariann Buddle, who presides over St. John’s, was “outraged” that “her” church was used as a backdrop for such an event. Suddenly Democrats like New York gov. Andrew Cuomo and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi went a step further and actually read from a Bible to one-up the President.

The media’s false narratives are evil. As they aid and abet those who are rampaging through our cities, the false narratives are tremendously destructive and are causing billions of dollars of property damage to the very businesses that people depend upon for goods and employment -- many of them owned by blacks who invested their life’s savings to “try to make it.” Now, all that entrepreneurial effort lies in waste.  In addition to the material costs and lost dreams, those instigating the rioters and the false reports are destroying the respect for law enforcement and the nation’s institutions in the minds of the nation’s young people. Molly Hemingway, on Twitter, summarized the situation succinctly:

“Battle lines are more clearly being drawn these days, between those who clearly believe America is irredeemably evil and must be violently overthrown and those who believe America remains the greatest country on earth, based on rule of law, individual liberty, and inalienable rights.”

For all his faults (Who among us is perfect? Certainly not some of those criticizing him the loudest!), President Trump is clearly leading the fight to “keep America the greatest country on earth, based on rule of law, individual liberty, inalienable rights.” Clearly, too, he is up against forces that see America as “irredeemably evil” and want to “violently overthrow” the government and destroy our society. Antifa -- as well as those who are pouring money into their efforts and those who are using their celebrity to promote their values and those who are using their media platforms to distort reality and help them achieve their goals -- knows how to exploit a crisis; these anarchists have been studying and training to be ready to immediately step into a situation like the tragic death of George Floyd to hijack the protests and turn them into riots. They not only hire protestors and supply them with bricks, hunks of concrete, frozen water bottles and other projectiles; they have studied how to manipulate legitimate protests with violent actions and rhetoric in order to ensnare young people by exploiting their natural desire for justice and yen for excitement.

Throughout history, leaders have used symbolic actions, events and rhetoric to unite and heal situations and problems. There are hundreds of scholarly studies, popular articles, and books attesting to the significance of symbolic acts in healing, inspiring people. Visionary and effective leaders rely on symbolic acts to convey meaning that goes deeper than words. Symbols speak to our subconscious at levels we don’t really understand; it’s an instinctual connection that touches frozen emotions and frees us to visualize healing while we’re still reeling from shock and horror at what has happened. Seeing the President walk freely across a park where during the previous two nights shocking and horrible rioting had threatened the White House and 60 Secret Service agents were injured was comforting. In the midst of chaos, ordinary American people saw normality restored.

While any one of us could nitpick various aspects of the event, there’s no question that the evocative images of the President standing for freedom, supporting law enforcement and respecting the church universal in front of St. John’s while holding the Holy Scriptures were powerful symbols of the foundations of American freedom and justice. The President was taking a stand: our nation has a firm foundation in the midst of chaos and crisis. He was saying: we will remain resolute and we will overcome this crisis and become a greater America. I’m reminded of Francis Schaeffer’s warning that if we “demand perfection or nothing; we will inevitably get nothing.” Our nation is still reeling from the disastrous coronavirus pandemic. The death of George Floyd was an atrocity on top of that disaster. Now the riots are adding calamity on top of disaster and atrocity -- a triple whammy, if you will! If we demand perfection from our President during these turbulent times -- a totally unreasonable standard we have not required of other presidents -- we will inevitable end up with something much worse!