“Ryan is looking down right now, and you know that, and he is very happy, because I think he just broke a record.”
“Hopefully George is looking down right now and saying this is a great thing that’s happening for our country,”
Trump’s cynical invoking of George Floyd yesterday has a history that explains what he imagined he was doing. In the first week after his inauguration, Trump approved a Navy Seal raid on suspected positions of al Queda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in the village of Yakla in Yemen. His National Security Adviser, General Flynn had portrayed the proposed raid as a “game changer” that would contrast Trump’s toughness with Obama’s supposed indecisiveness.
The raid was a fiasco. AQAP had somehow learned of the impending raid and fortified their positions. Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens was mortally wounded and at least five other American personnel were also wounded. Dozens of civilians were killed. Owens’s father called the mission “a screw-up from the start that ended badly.”
Characteristically, Trump deflected responsibility for the raid to the generals and the previous administration while incongruously insisting that it had been a tremendous success. A month later, though, came his opportunity to seize the narrative. At his first address to a joint session of Congress, Trump read from the teleprompter a glowing tribute to Officer Owens. He performed the encomium with gusto. When he finished, senators, representatives and guests stood in a sustained ovation while Owens’s tearful widow, a guest of Ivanka Trump, gazed upward.
Trump then ad-libbed his remark about Ryan looking down. The quip was well received with gentle chuckling. It nicely broke the tension of the dramatic spectacle.
Now one might dismiss the episode as a cynical, and sinister, exploitation of a pointless death — not to mention the “collateral damage” — and a widow’s grief. But that isn’t the way CNN panelist and ex-Obama aide Van Jones saw it. Jones lauded the performance as “one of the most extraordinary moments you have ever seen in American politics.” It was, in Jones’s view, the moment Trump “became president of the United States”:
That was one of the most extraordinary moments you have ever seen in American politics, period, and he did something extraordinary. And for people who have been hoping that he would become unifying, hoping that he might find some way to become presidential, they should be happy with that moment. For people who have been hoping that maybe he would remain a divisive cartoon, which he often finds a way to do, they should begin to become a little bit worried tonight, because that thing you just saw him do—if he finds a way to do that over and over again, he’s going to be there for eight years. Now, there was a lot that he said in that speech that was counterfactual, that was not right, that I oppose and will oppose. But he did something tonight that you cannot take away from him. He became president of the United States.
Undoubtedly Trump would have been shown Jones’s effusive commentary and would have basked in its obsequious glow. Yesterday, when he pulled his “looking down right now” stunt for the second time, he probably expected it to resonate as a unifying moment, thinking he was finding “a way to do that over and over again” without quite understanding what “that” had been. George Floyd was not a Navy Seal killed in action. He was an African-American man murdered by cops. The protesters are not sycophantic trained seals like the senators and representatives (of both parties). And, of course, Princess Ivanka had neglected to bring a grieving widow in tow to the “press conference.” There was nothing “presidential” about Trump’s ghoulish sequel of his “most extraordinary moment.”
If the prior performance illuminates the latter one, the opposite is also true. Trump’s tribute to Ryan Owens was no less cynical than his clumsy attempt to enlist George Floyd as a posthumous protagonist of the allegedly “great thing that’s happening for our country.”