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America’s contradictions are breaking wide open

On Donald Trump, standing outside a church, pretending to be strong.

President Trump holds up a Bible outside of St. John’s Episcopal church across Lafayette Park on June 1.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Muhammad Saeed al-Sahhaf, perhaps better known to Americans by the condescending nickname of “Baghdad Bob,” spent early 2003 trying to convince his fellow Iraqi citizens to stop believing their own eyes in favor of what they dearly wanted to feel in their hearts. Right up until the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime when Baghdad fell in April 2003, al-Sahhaf insisted, in his role as Information Minister, that American forces were about to be destroyed. It didn’t happen. Propaganda is a pernicious force, but it tends to crumple when faced with unavoidable reality.

I thought about al-Sahhaf during Donald Trump’s Monday-night march to St. John’s Lafayette, the Episcopalian church right by the White House that briefly caught fire on Sunday. (Disclaimer, I guess: I am an Episcopalian, and Trump’s use of one of our churches as a prop infuriates me.) He stood in front of the church and held up a Bible, seemingly to communicate to his evangelical base that he was on their side.

But he only did so after police had cleared peaceful protesters from in front of the White House using tear gas, and once he was standing in front of the church, he held the Bible in the sky like a bag full of dog poop, like he couldn’t wait to be rid of it.

I thought of al-Sahhaf in that moment because Trump’s photo op felt not like a prelude to victory but a weird admission of defeat. I want to be clear: The forces of so-called “law and order” that Trump purported to support still very much run rampant on American streets. But Trump’s actions and demeanor weren’t those of a president convinced he was about to win a great victory. They were those of a political leader doing whatever he could to shore up his base. He didn’t seem assured; he seemed panicky.

The photo op wasn’t meant to assuage the country or even non-Christian Republicans that protests and uprisings against police brutality would subside. It was meant as a sop to the party faithful, a statement not of leadership but of frustration. “Ignore your eyes and ears,” it seemed to suggest. “Things are going great!” But how many contradictions can one country bear before it splits wide open?

The disparity between the government’s response to Covid-19 and the response to protests against police brutality has been stark

A group of protesters on the steps of a building hold signs that read, “I want my life back,” and, “I prefer dangerous freedom to peaceful tyranny.”
Remember the protests of stay-at-home orders from early May?
Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images

The protests that followed the murder of George Floyd, first in his home city of Minneapolis and then quickly all across the nation, have felt both bigger and more significant than any other protest since the Vietnam War era. A lot of the media focus has been on what’s happening in the nation’s largest cities — from New York and Los Angeles to Seattle and Washington, DC. But as this Twitter thread from BuzzFeed’s Anne Helen Petersen shows, protests are happening everywhere, including in America’s small towns. Something about this time is different. But what?

To me, the answer lies in how many contradictions Americans are asked to believe at any given time. Perhaps the protests in a vacuum would have fizzled out, but they’re happening in the fourth year of a Trump presidency that has made life demonstrably worse for so many people (and frayed the nerves of many others). The protests are happening after a decade of viral video footage that has made Americans viscerally aware of how different policing of black communities is when compared to white communities. They are happening after the president’s demonization of anyone who’s not a white man.

They are also happening in the midst of a global pandemic, a deadly disease that the US has suffered by far the most casualties from. And even more damning, the Trump administration has never seemed urgently interested in stopping the spread of the coronavirus but does seem urgently interested in quelling protests, no matter how peaceful they are.

The contradictions in this scenario are rife, but here are just a few that many people have pointed out already: When largely white groups of protesters showed up at statehouses all around the country, armed with guns and screaming about how fed up they were with stay-at-home orders, they were greeted with considerable restraint by police officers. But when much more diverse groups protested police brutality, they were met with considerable violence.

Similarly, Trump was clearly reluctant to mobilize the military to produce necessary personal protective equipment for health care workers battling the pandemic but seemed only too willing to mobilize the military to suppress protests. Much of the pushback against the very idea of wearing a mask when leaving your house to slow the spread of Covid-19 has been centered on the idea of being unable to breathe, yet George Floyd, like so many black people before him, was killed when a police officer placed a knee on his neck, cutting off his airway. Shortly after the president’s Monday photo op, Fox News pundit Tucker Carlson insisted during his nightly program — a favorite of Trump’s — that the American left wants to overthrow the government and rule by brute force; he made that statement barely an hour after Trump himself said he wanted to break historical precedent for use of the American military and, well, rule the country by brute force.

All of these contradictions underline a central contradiction of American existence: White lives are treated as though they have more value than black lives. Yet the indiscriminate nature of police response to the protests currently taking place all over the country has underlined that a multiracial coalition protesting the police themselves will be treated as though the lives of every single person in the group are fundamentally without value.

There is no question that white folks should have realized this long, long ago. Some of us surely did, and more of us absolutely should have. But the functional result of so many contradictions piling on top of one other now has been a growing wave of people realizing that, hey, shit’s pretty fucked, isn’t it?

Contradictions are a part of our lives. But too many of them in one place at one time can splinter reality, sowing chaos — and possibly change.

Protesters on a street hold up signs that read, “Stop killing black people,” “Defund the police,” “Back lives matter,” and, “End white violence.”
Demonstrators march through the streets of Hollywood, California.
Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images

Embracing contradictions is part of human life. We understand that to have peace, you must prepare for war, to point to one very famous example. But too many contradictions piled on top of one another create a kind of alternate reality, one very like the fictional society in George Orwell’s 1984, where war is peace and freedom is slavery. But believing all of those contradictions requires an entire nation to either buy into that alternate reality or be sufficiently terrified into supporting it.

And don’t get me wrong: Human history is full of these alternate realities, often with disastrous effects. (The doublethink required to live in essentially any authoritarian dictatorship forces a lot of the citizenry to pretend atrocities don’t exist.) But they usually involve a leader who is supported by more of his citizens than not. Meanwhile, all available polling suggests that’s not the case with Donald Trump, who seems at all times like a weak man’s holographic projection of what he thinks a strong man must be like. As more people key into this contradiction inherent in the president himself, the more his approval numbers droop.

As a trans woman, I’ve thought a lot about how learning to see one contradiction in life can cause you to see all of them, seemingly all at once. To some degree, coming out as a trans person is an open admission that the gender binary, as it exists in society, simply cannot account for the multiplicity of ways individuals might express their own genders, the ways that crude systems can never completely contain the messiness of human beings in all their expression.

There’s a famous meme in trans woman communities, built atop the galaxy brain template. (If you have not seen this meme format, it’s one where a progressive series of human brains seem to explode with more and more knowledge of everything in the galaxy.) The first panel — the normal brain — says, “I wish I was a girl.” The second, as the brain is coming to life with points of light, says, “I can just be a girl.” The third, glowing, says, “I always was a girl.” And the last, as the brain reaches its galactic state, says, “Destroy capitalism.”

It’s the best explanation I’ve found for why so many trans people I know, even those of us who started pretty far to the left, find themselves sailing off the map of typical American political discourse into socialism or communism or even anarchy. (Hi, I’m Emily, and I’m a socialist.) To wake up to the idea that your gender is not what you were told it was is to wake up to the idea that a lot of human society is built atop broken systems. And these systems are mass hallucinations. They’re built by people, and they only exist as long as we believe in them.

For a long time now, I’ve thought of Trump’s promise of a wall on the border with Mexico less in terms of a physical wall — though it is that — and more in terms of the psychological and emotional need it appears to satisfy in Trump and many of his supporters. There’s certainly a bone-deep racist desire to just keep nonwhite people out. But there’s also a seeming belief that this one non-porous boundary can reinstate a bunch of other ones.

I grew up in a religious community (the very evangelical Christian community Trump was pandering to with his photo op) that asked everyone in it to put up a mental wall between the self and the approved version of the self that aligned with the church community. The marketing pitch was acceptance; the practice was acceptance, but only insofar as any churchgoer could emulate some impossible ideal. (That ideal does not account for trans women, which is a big part of why I left.) That, too, was a contradiction, and embracing it required an almost pathological degree of magical thinking, of insisting things were better than they seemed to be, in both one’s personal and political lives, because God had made it so.

But they almost never were, and whatever God is up to now likely doesn’t involve being intimately involved in every detail of every life. The walls you put up keep you in as surely as they keep out anything or anybody else. The contradictions you accept also bind you. Donald Trump is creating what feels terrifyingly like a police state, but he also acts like a man who has been defeated, a man who is scared.

In forcing these contradictions out into the open, perhaps Trump has created the conditions that will lead to his ultimate exit from the Oval Office, even if he will never, ever go quietly. He is nowhere near done for, yet he’s lost control of his story all the same. Things can get better, so long as enough of us believe in our eyes and ears, not in what others insist must be true. Something new can be realized in our lifetimes.

You can only ask people to believe in so many impossible things before the world breaks wide open and reveals the truth behind your convenient lies.

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