Owning the Asphalt




FOR FOUR YEARS, psychiatrists have been trying to pin down the pathologies raging inside President Trump’s head, many landing on “malignant narcissism” as the diagnosis. The simpler interpretation is that deep down Trump, as a former developer, thinks that his social contract with voters is not the Constitution but an eight-year lease. He thinks he owns the country: “I can do whatever I want as president,” he said.

Trump’s advice to the nation’s governors on a group call — “You have to dominate the streets” — exposed the danger of a president who thinks he’s the lord of the land. His demand revealed that aggressive domination has always been his basic modus operandi, and that though he occupies the White House, his mind is still located in Trump Tower, where he dictated the rules.

As a developer and landlord, his strategies for dominating ranged from 3,500 lawsuits to threats of financial ruin and social shame. He once barged into a co-op board meeting in New York flanked by lawyers, and threatened to sue the board collectively and individually if it pursued claims about the faulty infrastructure of the high-rise he built. As if clinching the deal, he added that the tabloids might be interested in the board president’s messy divorce. He hijacked the co-op’s democracy by dominating dirty.

In Trump’s case of chicken and egg, it is unclear whether ownership gave him the urge to bully, or whether he developed property in order to dominate.

Translating domination into the social contract with America, Trump has tried over the last several weeks to rewrite his lease with the public to include the right to use military force for eviction. But the public stood its ground, taking over the street, a domain guaranteed by the First Amendment. Public space belonged to the public.

The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25 was the tipping point. Trump didn’t invent racism, but he had inflamed it and provoked outbreaks. During his nakedly aggressive career, he had oppressed so many in rituals of dominance that the image of Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd was, in many minds, linked to him and his lust for domination. Trump was the shadow over the murder.

The demonstrations might not have happened to the extent they did without three-and-a-half years of Trump’s inflammatory presidency. Floyd’s murder caused a volcano of simmering grievances to finally erupt. There were, first of all, the failures of character: nepotism, incompetence, phoniness, lies, venality, self-dealing, meanness, mistreatment of women, profiteering, cheating, and raw cupidity — the elevation of money über alles. On a purely political level, there was the refusal to curb gun violence and global warming, gerrymandering and voter suppression, immigrant baiting and the incarceration of children, systemic corruption and a collapsed economy with no exit strategy. Though Trump didn’t import COVID-19, he did remarkably little to stop it, failing to manage the pandemic and finally just abandoning the effort. Over 110,000 people have died, and communities of color have borne the brunt of the impact. “I don’t take responsibility at all,” he said.

The fight for the soul of the nation on the nation’s streets came to a focus in Washington, which, as a federal district, did not have the instruments of statehood to protect itself from Trump’s brute military tactics. The district is basically a city with a federal jurisdiction, subject to direct federal control.

Like a despot, Trump ringed the center of the city with the National Guard, adding federal officers (from the FBI, ICE, US Army, US Parks, and Secret Service, some in intimidating Darth Vader black) to the municipal police presence. Using tear gas, rubber bullets, and flashbang grenades, Trump launched his assault prior to curfew on the peaceful protesters in Lafayette Square, and once the park was cleared in a deliberate show of excessive force, he strutted through the square, as though completing a demonstration exercise in just how to do it. The strong man later congratulated himself on Twitter: “Many arrests. Great job done by all. Overwhelming force. Domination.”

The space was his: he owned it. The president who had always admired the success of China’s authoritarian state over the students in Tiananmen Square tasted blood, and ominously threatened, “This is practice.” His trial run was all the more “successful” because it tested the loyalty of Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and General Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and therefore of the military itself. They passed. On the call with the governors, Esper himself stressed the “need to dominate the battle space,” and he and Milley, with Attorney General William Barr, walked in with the president, all compliant enablers. Trump needed to know whether the military, like the Department of Justice, the Senate, and the State Department, were corruptible, whether he commanded its total allegiance. Now he knew he was free to apply his boot to the neck of the country.

Still, the demonstrators persisted. They returned to the street, and the mayor of Washington, DC, Muriel Bowser, underlined the point of public ownership graphically by turning the street itself into a symbol of resistance: she painted two blocks of the entire width of 16th Street, which leads directly to the White House, in bold yellow letters spelling “Black Lives Matter.” She named a section in front of the White House “Black Lives Matter Plaza.” The man with his finger on the red button, a president among presidents, was being defied by a Black female mayor. While he retreated to press conferences held in the safety of the Rose Garden, protected behind a new ring of fencing, she was freely walking the town, which remained, however tenuously, outside the control of the federal institutions that had capitulated to Trump. Without troops for protection, he didn’t dare show his face in Lafayette Square. The people protected her.

If collective action has proved remarkably resilient on the streets of Washington, Trump can blame the city’s 18th-century planner, Pierre L’Enfant, a French aristocrat turned American revolutionary. L’Enfant inscribed democracy into his plan with generous public spaces that included the Mall, Lafayette Square, Pennsylvania Avenue, and the many circles where the urban grid intersected his diagonal avenues. L’Enfant had spatialized democracy as a fact on the ground, and now, under the gaze of the landlord in the White House, the public was using public space as designed. L’Enfant implemented the idea of open democratic space centuries before it was gated in the popular public-private partnerships of recent years that have generated privatized public spaces around the country, like the atrium of Trump Tower.

Part of Trump’s history as president has been a fight for control of the streets — implicitly a fight between private ownership and public rights. Even before COVID-19 closed down his rallies, it was in the public space outside the arenas, off-screen, beyond Twitter, that he ran into trouble. He owned the news cycles with his antics, but the streets stubbornly resisted him. From the very second day of his presidency, he waged war with Obama about whose inauguration was bigger. Obama’s ceremonies galled him. Trump lost the battle all over again when the Women’s March fielded even more people on the Mall after the Inauguration — and the next year, ditto. In 2018, when permission to use the Mall was disallowed for suspect reasons, the student organizers of the March for Our Lives held it instead on Pennsylvania Avenue, within earshot of the White House.

As we reported here last year, Trump did succeed in finally taking over the Mall by grafting what was basically a campaign rally to the annual July 4th celebration. He owned the day and the Mall, privatizing Washington’s civic esplanade. The government picked up the tab, and offered up generals and admirals as garnish. Jets streamed in formation overhead.

Co-opting the Mall was a petty act of revenge and opportunism, but invading Lafayette Square escalated the fight for the ownership of public space by an order of magnitude. The military was no longer decorative. It was operative. Deploying soldiers, Trump graduated from huckster to autocrat. Lafayette Square was a dress rehearsal for a self-invasion of the United States by its own military.

This pathology of forceful control and possession was entirely in keeping with the trajectory of his career, but the irony was that Trump was never a successful owner. He was a successful loser, escaping his bankruptcies and assorted messes with substantial profits, leaving others to swallow the losses. He over-borrowed, over-extended, stripped assets, and exercised poor judgment. As a subset of malignant narcissism, the malignancy of ownership à la Trump was seeing others lose as he gained in his zero-sum blood sport. Now, during the street demonstrations, he bluntly advertised that domination-by-force and government-by-fear are the tactics he would deploy to win, not only at the public’s expense but also at the price of its humiliation.

Furthermore, for Trump, ownership has always meant creating fiefdoms. In 2015, when he descended the escalator to announce his candidacy in the atrium of Trump Tower he was master of a dominion, prince of his own principality. His tony golf courses are princedoms that clearly embody the attitude: the mansions dominate and own the landscape, in which he created a two-tiered society of servants and the served. What he cares about are trophies: trophy buildings, trophy addresses. And as he failed upward into politics, the most prestigious trophy he could acquire was the White House. Like an easement, the country came with it — not to mention other assets, like the armed forces with its garage of helicopters, tear gas, assault rifles, fighter jets, tanks, and missiles.

As president, there was no end to the trophy addresses he could acquire. He appointed his way into dominating the Supreme Court, and through William Barr he owned the law. Mike Pompeo delivered the State Department. With Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham, the Senate proved a cakewalk. The White House came with deeds. Why not grab Greenland, too?

But public land protected by law stuck in his craw, tempting and irresistible. He issued executive orders to sell development rights, often to oil companies whose exploitation would only aggravate global warming. Perversion permeated his acquisitive territorial pleasures.

Inevitably he applied his real estate model of winning by failing to the country itself. On his lease, during his ownership, the United States is now coming apart like his casinos. Trump stared through the window of the darkened White House and saw the demonstrators at the gates. The public was tearing up whatever remained of his social contract, spontaneously acting as a single voice, taking ownership back. Even as he wanted to militarize the street with police, they wanted to demilitarize the police.

Who would think that the analog space of cities would matter with so much of our daily reality transpiring on screen? Historically, the street is where uprisings turn into revolutions, but in the age of the internet, now the de facto public forum, why would asphalt matter more than Twitter? As it happens, the public used the wall-less open streets as a fortress of democracy, and, importantly, as a sound stage that bumped Trump off the air: the demonstrators owned our screens, Trump’s preferred patch of real estate. He only occupied the margins, impotently relegated to the Rose Garden — his macho presidency protected by the scent of roses — until he could recapture the screen by staging his next rally (which was originally scheduled for Juneteenth in Tulsa, and was reluctantly moved to the 20th).

Americans have cause: it’s the worst of times. The nation is in free fall. Endemic racism has been exposed big time. The pandemic has claimed over 100,000 lives. The economy is crashing, with unemployment nearly at Depression-era levels. There is a vacuum of leadership in the party that controls power.

At the most critical moment in his presidency, at the height of his power, Trump was denied ownership of the simple American street: these were not parades in his honor, not the tanks he wanted to roll down Pennsylvania Avenue in a tribute to his ego. It turned out that calling in the military was no way to close the deal. The street was the cradle of the nation, and holding its own, the public was defending democracy itself. The Senate had failed to convict the impeached president, but marching made the conviction abundantly clear.

There has been an arc to the furious weeks of demonstrations, from anger and frustration to fear and loathing to a resolve to correct root causes of the malaise — most obviously the systemic racism, but also a larger package of frustrations. The resolve includes voting in the next election: there’s a direct connection between the street and the ballot box. The long moment on the street is part of a greater political movement.

America may not be renewing its lease with Trump. It refuses a life in Trump Tower. Taking the streets was a way to take back the country. Asphalt has proved the soil of democracy.

¤

Joseph Giovannini is a critic, architect, and teacher based in New York. Trained at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, he has written for The New York Times, the Los Angeles TimesNew York MagazineArchitect Magazine, and Architectural Record, and has taught at Columbia, Harvard, UCLA, USC, and SCI-Arc.

¤

Featured image: “2020.06.07 Black Lives Matter Plaza, Washington, DC USA 159 80067” by Ted Eytan is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Banner image: “2020.06.09 Black Lives Matter Plaza, Washington, DC USA 161 36021” by Ted Eytan is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

 

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