I never (ever. ever) thought I would say this–but the president taught us an important lesson today.
First he bemoaned the white supremacist activity as “violence from many sides, many sides.” Then he reappeared the next day with a bland and scripted statement condemning white supremacy– sounding for all the world like a child who’s being made to apologize to his little sister, even though he doesn’t understand (or care) what he’s done. This bland, measured, completely unemotional statement… from a man who Tweets like a maniac in the wee hours of the morning over the slightest insult to his person (or hair). For white supremacy, he can reign in the crazy, apparently. He doesn’t want to “rush into statements.” And when he DOES make a statement, it’s to say “hey guys, that’s bad. Stop it.”
It was half-assed, it was insincere, but at least the words were the right ones. SO OF COURSE came back today–after being shamed by David Duke, former KKK Grand Poo-ba of whatever, for abandoning his loyal voter base… The President of the country that has railed against tyranny, in all its forms, for centuries, came back to the cameras today and said again that there are many sides to blame. And then he coined the absurd term “alt-left” to classify… I guess everyone who’s not a white supremacist?
Best as I can tell, that umbrella can cover anyone–black people, Democrats, liberals, feminists, people who drive a Prius, probably your librarian, and anybody who has the word “-ologist” in their degree or job title. Alt-left is the new code for “them,” “not us,” “trouble makers” and “reasonable sane people who do not want to live in the 50s again.”
Oh, and then… I think he said something about how NOT ALL WHITE SUPREMACISTS ARE BAD PEOPLE, geez guys, give them a break. They’re just like you and me.
Like most of you, I’m horrified, but not surprised. This is where we are. This is who we’ve got.
But maybe there’s an unlikely takeaway here–a truly profound teaching moment, the likes of which most of us have not witnessed in our lifetime.
Although I’m certain it was not his intention, what Trump has actually given us these last few days is the mother of all civics lessons–a living, breathing example of how systemic racism works. Just in time for back to school, he’s offering a full-on clinic in how suppression of minorities becomes institutionalized–so deeply engrained in our systems and our culture that, unless we are affected by it directly, it’s easy to ignore. It’s a history teacher’s dream; his words these last few days offer the perfect commentary on where we are, and how we got here.
What he’s showing us is how institutionalized racism works. It goes like this: pretend that the anti-racist movement is causing the problem. Blame racism on black people, and activists. Blame the first black president who, by his very presence in a place of power, stirred up white resentment that had gone underground for the past few decades. Still there, to be sure, but mostly removed from polite society.
Next, you ask that we all just “get along.” You make pleas for unity; you talk a lot about love, but you make it seem like love is something passive. Something that learns to take abuse with a smile, for the sake of a pleasant neighborhood. And when that doesn’t work, maybe you buy a news outlet. You gather a circle of loyalists who only follow YOUR news outlet. Who believe that all other sources are lies.
And once you’ve got a media machine in hand, you can create propaganda. You can say anything you want. So you say that the people trying to change the system are the actual bad guys; that they are dangerous, and violent.
You effectively create MORE fear and mistrust of people of color, by insisting they are the ones keeping us from living in peace.
As Professor Trump is showing us in real time–these story-telling tactics worked marvelously during the Civil War. For years abolitionists and freed slaves were “trouble makers,” “rabble rousers,” and disruptors of the peace.
It worked for Hitler in World War II Germany. It worked in America too, during the same war: exhibit A, Japanese Internment camps.
It worked during the Civil Rights movement. Same story.
And it seems to be working now. Because clearly, we never learn. No matter how many times history tries to teach us. No matter how many unlikely teachers try to remind us how this story ends.