By Christine Todd Whitman
June 3, 2020
In times of crisis, our country has been fortunate to have leaders of quality, among them George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. Confronted with war, economic collapse and deep societal divisions, these leaders and others spoke with compassion and foresight. Projecting confidence they may not have felt, they reinforced the will of the American people to work collectively, to face the issues together.
Unfortunately, we now have a president whose instincts are the exact opposite of those great leaders. Instead of promoting unity through open dialogue, Trump has rubbed rhetorical salt in our country’s open wound of racism. Instead of praying for justice and peace, Trump had peaceful protesters gassed so he could pose for a photo-op. Instead of fostering collaboration, he criticized local leaders and reiterated the dangerous idea that he has absolute power.
Trump is not the leader our nation needs, and it is time he got out of the way so true leaders can move our nation forward.
When Trump focuses on rioting and looting, he draws attention away from the heart of the protests. The protesters, mostly peaceful, are responding to our nation’s systemic racism and mourning the all-too-frequent loss of black life at the hands of police. Racism is an undeniable, shameful part of America’s legacy, and it is one in which we all participate. On a personal level, we all — however unintentionally — make judgments about people based on their appearance. Stereotyping is not right, and yet it is what our president has modeled. With inflammatory rhetoric about black and brown Americans, Trump has shamelessly participated in and exacerbated our nation’s original sin of racism.
Leadership means toning down the rhetorical temperature and moving toward healing.
And just as he did with the protesters at the White House, he is escalating violence around the country. It is frankly ridiculous for Trump to threaten to override state and local officials by deploying the U.S. military. He is trying to solve a complicated, deep issue by metaphorically waving a gun around, and if the military is needed, governors can ask.
Setting aside how terrifying it is that the man who has been our president for 3½ years does not appear to know how government works in this country, his threats to use the U.S. military against civilian protesters is the stuff of despots.
While Trump’s recourse to violence is disturbing, so is his continued disrespect for the leadership and authority of state governors and city mayors.
Just as he did during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, when he claimed he had “total” authority and dismissed governors’ responsibility to lead their states, Trump is again disregarding the work of local leaders during this crisis. Governors are not standing idly by — they are acting, trying to reduce tensions and help their communities, sometimes calling on the national guard and state police for support. Governors have a vital role in helping their communities heal, and Trump’s goading them into “dominating” their people will only deepen wounds.
Americans also deserve leaders who can draw on our faith traditions to promote peace and justice. After using tear gas and riot police to clear a path outside the White House, Trump walked across the street to St. John’s Church and awkwardly hoisted a Bible in his hand and posed for photos.
While the moment seemed designed to appeal to his Christian supporters, it was devoid of genuine faith activity. He did not enter the church, he did not say a prayer or even bow his head in reverence, he did not call for peace — he simply waved the Bible as a prop. Americans deserve better.
As the former governor of New Jersey, I know that calm, measured leadership is essential to solving any crisis. Leadership means toning down the rhetorical temperature and moving toward healing. We need leaders to bravely address immediate problems, including the destruction of businesses, the use of excessive force by police, and the continued devastation of Covid-19. The vast majority of police officers are good people, but we need to do a better job with training and recruitment.
Trump is trying to solve a complicated, deep issue by metaphorically waving a gun around.
But governors and mayors cannot stop with the immediate issues. We need leaders who acknowledge the need for reform to address racism at all levels: policing, education, housing, health care and more. And while addressing systemic racism, our leaders must look to the future in other areas: economic growth, climate change, and more.
Real leaders acknowledge the issues instead of condemning people for speaking up. Trump needs to stop talking and let our mayors and governors pave the way to a more perfect union.