This week, thoughtful leaders in my district and around the country are doing their best to de-escalate violence and channel our national outrage into peaceful demands for change.
This moment should be about confronting our country's original sin — racism — and ending the systemic police abuse that has fueled it for decades.
Unfortunately, President Donald Trump sees it differently. Instead of calming and unifying our nation through empathy and conciliation, he did the opposite. He declared brute force as the only answer to the unrest sweeping America.
In a series of unhinged statements and actions that will live in infamy, Trump — with his signature word-salad ambiguity — seemed to declare martial law, seemed to invoke the Insurrection Act of 1807 so that our military could "dominate" the streets of America, seemed to go over the heads of "weak" governors by putting Gen. Mark Milley "in charge" of a national response and seemed to summon right-wing militias to the fight by gratuitously injecting Second Amendment gun rights into his remarks.
Then came something totally unambiguous. Trump ordered armored police to forcibly clear a peaceful protest using flash grenades and tear gas so that he could stage his own cowardly march to nearby St. John's Episcopal Church. In a choreographed projection of white male authority, he was flanked by a phalanx of Milley in battle fatigues, Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Attorney General William Barr. The church was used as a prop, against the wishes of horrified clergy who were among those forcibly removed to make way for a photo op.
And then our president, awkwardly, in his best fake tough guy manner, lifted a Bible above his head while cameras clicked. He didn't read insightful passages or seek a moment of prayerful reflection; he just stood there pretending to be Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments. When asked if it was actually his Bible he snapped, "it's a Bible." With that, it was over and he scurried back across the street to the White House bunker.
No president in history has crammed so many unconstitutional acts of division into such a short period. His cowardly appeal to violence and division is yet the latest reminder of the missed opportunity of his presidency.
Even a second-rate president with a barely competent staff could see the historic opening this past weekend. After years of systemic oppression and police violence targeting black communities, the awful killing of George Floyd has people of all races and backgrounds — including peaceful protesters and thoughtful police officers — talking and listening to each other like never before.
The seeds of a national reckoning were right there, inviting a good president to help them grow. But our 45th president is the anti-Lincoln, completely incapable of rising to the occasion and appealing to the better angels of our nature. He prefers fear, conflict and chaos, hence the buffoonish photo-op with the Bible.
Here's the thing: As goofy as Trump seems, as much material as he provides for late-night comedians, this is no joke. His attempt to use chaos to shred democratic safeguards and consolidate authoritarian power is deadly serious.
This is our own Reichstag fire and, yes, Trump is playing the role of would-be Fuehrer, proclaiming a "God-given signal" to seize more power. Adolf Hitler wasn't the first demagogue to use the potent cocktail of religion, nationalism and scapegoating. This is the playbook of strongmen and caudillos, and I'm sure Trump won't be the last to try it.
Preventing it from happening here starts with waking up and acknowledging that, yes, it's happening here. I believe we still have the ability to peacefully stop it. This can even be an historic inflection point for good. But if we fail to recognize what Trump is doing, this could be a Reichstag redux — the chaotic opportunity Trump seized to become the American Fuehrer, with all the darkness we know, from history, will follow if we go down that path.
I wouldn't make this grim historical comparison lightly. I believe this is the actual choice facing our country in the weeks ahead. We must each decide whether we stand with Trump or with the United States of America as we know it.
Editor's note: This column first appeared in the Marin Independent Journal.
Rep. Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael) has represented the North Coast in Congress since 2012.