When D.C. Becomes a Political Prop
Updated: Jun 3
Needless to say, President Trump’s bizarre appearance yesterday at a church one block from the White House did not get him the positive press coverage he had hoped for. Trump posed in front of the recently-damaged St. John’s Episcopal Church while awkwardly holding a Bible, angering Washington, D.C.'s Episcopal bishop and drawing scorn from numerous religious leaders. The White House was widely condemned when federal law enforcement officers forcibly removed peaceful protestors from Lafayette Square and nearby streets, and assaulted at least one news cameraman, to make space for the photo-op.
Trump’s controversial use of a neighborhood house of worship to make himself look like a religious “law and order” president appears to have been unprecedented. However, his ill-conceived stunt also brought to mind another strange media moment involving a very different Chief Executive.
In 1989, during a nationally-televised address, President George H.W. Bush held up a bag of crack cocaine which, he declared, had been purchased in “a park just across the street from the White House.” Bush wanted viewers to believe that illegal drugs were so rampant that they had reached the perimeter of the president’s home. In truth, drug dealers avoided Lafayette Square, which was crowded with tourists and monitored by the Secret Service. To secure the prop that Bush wanted, an undercover DEA agent had had to lure a dealer from another neighborhood to make the sale.
Trump’s church appearance and Bush’s “bag of crack” speech were both failed White House media events. But more importantly, they underscore how too many national politicians see our national capital: as a backdrop they can exploit to score political points, often at the expense of the people who live there.
Take, for instance, the decision to kick demonstrators out of Lafayette Square so that Trump could walk to St. John’s. Not only did it impinge upon the rights of city residents to exercise peaceful protest, it also forced local police to deal with the consequences of angry demonstrators fleeing to other neighborhoods. As D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser tweeted, it was “an act that will make the job of @DCPoliceDept officers more difficult.”
Press events are not the only way that politicians use Washington, D.C. as a stage to gin up voter support. In 2016, then-Congressman Rod Blum (R-IA) tweeted a picture of construction cranes in the city as evidence that Washington was “being built on the backs of US taxpayers,” adding that “DC needs a recession.” Blum’s callous tweet was factually incorrect—the cranes were part of a privately-financed waterfront project—yet all that mattered, from Blum's perspective, is that it cultivated a useful “outsider” image to constituents.
Lawmakers sometimes go beyond verbal jabs. Congress has considerable power over Washington, D.C.—the only city in the country that lacks voting representation in the House and Senate—and legislators take advantage of that power to impose restrictions on city residents that they can brag about back home. Members of Congress who couldn’t stop marijuana sales in their own states have banned the legal sale of recreational marijuana in D.C. In the past, lawmakers have kept the city from lobbying for statehood or giving equal rights to same-sex couples.
Though lawmakers of both parties have imposed their policy preferences on Washingtonians, it is a favorite pastime of congressional Republicans, who think they can keep their conservative constituents happy by bending liberal-leaning D.C. to their will. Republicans also oppose giving the city more independence, and Trump bluntly stated that it should never become a state because doing so would put more Democrats in Congress.
Giving congressional voting rights to D.C.—and more autonomy, if not statehood—would go a considerable way towards preventing these abuses. But cheap political slurs and disregard for the wishes of D.C. residents stem from a deeper failure of political actors to understand and respect the city that surrounds them. As my coauthors and I emphasized in our book Washington 101 (based on a recurring class taught at my university), the capital is not just a political city but also a living city—a place with its own history, full of vibrant and diverse neighborhoods, where tens of thousands of people work in jobs unrelated to politics.
Unfortunately, neither the president nor many members of Congress know or care about the living city that surrounds them. And as long as that remains the case, Washington, D.C. will almost certainly remain subject to the whims of the country’s governing class.