Leonard Pitts: Trump knows how to put on show

Published 12:00 am Sunday, July 26, 2020

By Leonard Pitts

We are watching a show. It’s important to keep that in mind.

It has its villains — Mayor Lori Lightfoot of Chicago, Mayor Ted Wheeler of Portland and other supporters of the “liberal, radical left” idea that people have the right peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

It has its victims, people in towns where they don’t have or need symphony orchestras and art museums and the very idea of street protests fills them with existential horror.

And the show has its hero, too, Donald John Trump, getting tough with those lawless cities, standing between the victims and their fears and not bothering overmuch about constitutional niceties while he does.

That’s how you end up with the recent spectacle of at least one person reportedly snatched off the streets of Portland by federal agents bearing no badges or identifying insignia and stuffed into an unmarked van on no probable cause, or even an allegation of crime. At this writing, Trump is sending federal agents — using, presumably, the same tactics — to Chicago, which, in his telling, teeters on the edge of criminal anarchy, and he, alone, can save it.

If it smacks of despotism, this idea of government seizing those who — it bears repeating — are accused of no crime, well, Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf tells Fox “News” that sometimes you have to “proactively arrest” people. It’s a nicely dystopian term that might have come out of “The Minority Report,” the 1956 novella by Philip K. Dick (also a 2002 film starring Tom Cruise), which posits a world where “precogs” divine the future, enabling police to prevent crime instead of just solving it. Dick provides other terms Wolf might find useful: “precrime,” “potential criminals,” “prophylactic pre-detection.”

If it occurs to you there’s no such thing as “precogs,” if this all seems to you like a civil liberties nightmare, well, you’re missing the point. Again, this is a show.

And give him his due. Trump may have failed as a businessman, an educator, an airline mogul, a casino operator, a steak salesman and a human being, but he knows how to put on a show. He also knows every moment we spend talking about American fascism is a moment not spent talking about Russia putting a price on American heads, which in turn keeps us from talking about the 143,000 who’ve died of a virus Trump said would magically disappear.

Even his distractions have distractions.

In fairness, this march toward fascist dystopia didn’t begin in Portland. For years, we saw black and Hispanic men stopped and frisked in New York City without probable cause. We’ve seen cops empowered to take your money and border agents empowered to seize and search your laptops and smartphones, also without probable cause. In 2015, we saw a woman named Charnesia Corley subjected to a police search of her vagina on the pavement at a gas station.

What we haven’t seen so much is public outrage.

So Trump’s innovation is not stomping the Constitution, but making the stomping a show. If it doesn’t seem like much of one to you, well, you’re not the intended audience. For them, this is Dirty Harry and Rambo all rolled into one. For the rest of us, this show isn’t about a tough guy. Rather, it’s about a second-rate magician whose act has seen better days, whose top hat is worn, whose cards are frayed, whose every move reeks of flop-sweat desperation, the terror that he might be seen as he really is.

Which makes this magician dangerous in the same way a cornered animal is. And if we aren’t careful, he may pull off one last trick.

He may make freedom disappear.

Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 3511 NW 91st Ave., Miami, Fla., 33172. Readers may contact him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com.